Ebola has turned Sierra Leone upside down. Projected to be one of the world’s fastest-growing economies in 2015, the country is now reeling from the impact of the virus. Grace Newman is on-staff in Freetown with Street Child, a non-profit that usually work to resettle street children in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and have now shifted to also assisting children orphaned by Ebola. With strong existing, locally-led teams the organisation found themselves in a unique position to help children and families affected by the virus, and are doing so.
Grace talks to Sarah.
Who are Street Child?
Street Child normally work in the education sector, helping children who are out of school gain access to a basic education. We normally do that in two ways; one, in urban areas, which is where our programme began, we normally work with children who are street-connected and out of school. Often they’re either street-sleeping, or in some other way dependent on the streets for their survival. We work with them, make sure they receive the counselling that they need, that they get resettled into safe and stable family living environments. We help them through that whole process. In rural areas we work with communities to establish schools in places where there aren’t schools, or aren’t functioning schools. It’s a really community-based development initiative, where the communities are starting their own schools, and we’re just supporting that process. Through those programmes we’ve helped 20,000 children in Sierra Leone and Liberia, over the last six years, gain access to a basic education. Now, with the outbreak of Ebola, the schools are actually closed by mandate in both countries. And so we have refocussed all of our work on responding to the Ebola crisis, in the ways that we’re best positioned to do that.
Normally we have teams all over the country in Sierra Leone, and in really strategic places in Liberia. Our programme there is a bit newer, it’s only been around for a year and a half. We have teams in all of those locations that have a deep capacity for working with vulnerable children. They’ve been retrained and reemployed and are now focussing on working with children who have been orphaned by Ebola.
One major focus for us is working with children who have been orphaned by Ebola, just using the same core competencies that our teams already have working with street-connected children, and redeploying those skills of counselling, providing support, making sure that children are settled and safe in stable living environments, but using that for children who have been negatively impacted by the Ebola outbreak. In rural areas, where we also have a really strong presence, we’ve redeployed all of the teachers that are already receiving stipends from the organisation, to in normal circumstances, provide basic education, and they are now Ebola educators in their communities. They carry messages of how to protect yourself from Ebola, and are often the first messaging that these communities are hearing about how they can protect themselves. Actually the message isn’t that complicated, it’s really quite simple; if you don’t touch sick people, if you don’t touch dead people – and if you get sick, if you don’t let get people touch you – the chance that the virus spreads is really quite minimal. We’ve had a lot of success actually in reaching the villages early. The impact is really minimised if people know how to keep themselves safe ahead of time.
We’ve got over 600 staff that are presently working on delivering those programmes in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
That’s a massive operation.
Yeah it’s huge. But I think we’ve really found places that are under-served, or I guess, ways that we’re able to impact the response really, really positively. There aren’t other organisations that have quite the scale that we have already established in-country, who have a capacity in working with vulnerable children. We’ve worked with [8,000] children now, who have been orphaned by Ebola. The scale’s really huge, and there’s just not other organisations who are already in place, able to do that. I’m really proud of our teams, who have just stepped up, and been working seven days a week, who are really, really working hard. They’re amazing people.
Are most of the team local?
They’re all Sierra Leonian – or Liberian, in Liberia – I’m really the only international member of staff [in Freetown]. Street Child Sierra Leone is a Sierra Leonian organisation. It’s locally led, locally run, has a local board of directors. Ditto for Street Child Liberia – locally led, locally run. And we are Street Child UK, that basically provide capacity-building and fundraising support to both of those organisations.
So you’re based in Freetown in a support capacity?
Yeah. I normally work on the programme side – I do a lot of work helping the teams report the work that they’re already doing. Our local teams are really the strength, and definitely the core of what Street Child does, is the fact that we have some really amazing, inspirational and hardworking [staff]. Deep capacity locally is the reason that Street Child is a successful organisation.
When did Ebola first hit Sierra Leone?
The first firm case was at the end of May, I believe.
So between then and now you’ve worked with 5,000 children who have been orphaned?
Yeah, well we believe in the region – so Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia – that there are more than [30,000 children] who have been orphaned by Ebola. We’re working with [now 8,000] between Sierra Leone and Liberia. It’s huge. It’s really catastrophic. When we’re speaking about orphans, we mean that the child has lost the person that they look to primarily as a caregiver. Often that means their biological parents, but sometimes children might have already lost their biological parents and now have lost, you know, the aunty who had taken them in. Or there’s any other myriad of situations. If a child has lost to Ebola the person who is normally their breadwinner, who is normally the person that they look to for care and support, those are the children that we are looking after. That we consider children who have been orphaned by Ebola.
Are a lot of the children you’re looking after now children you were already connected with prior to the outbreak?
No, these are [8,000 new children]. We are additionally in contact with the children that we previously reunited with their families, or helped resettle in new family home situations, who were previously street children, or street-connected children. We’re continuing to monitor those situations and provide support, but no these [8,000] children are all totally new to us. They were not previous beneficiaries. They’re new, due to Ebola.
How are you looking to make sure they’re ok in the world, looking to the future as well? Especially if they’ve lost that second caregiver.
It’s an involved process, definitely. I think Street Child is uniquely capacitated to do this, just based on our previous work with street children, or street-connected children. [Normally] we have teams of street-based social workers, in every urban location in Sierra Leone, and in Monrovia, and Buchanan, in Liberia. Those teams identify vulnerable children. They meet them, they get to know them, they provide counselling services, help to connect them with other existing resources, and then help them to trace their family, usually to find an extended family member who’s willing, able and appropriate to take the child. We help negotiate that whole situation, [the teams are] very, very good at family tracing and reunification. It’s probably one of our most core capacities. We monitor that situation, we ensure the child gets enrolled in school and we help the family.
We have our social team, and then we have our business team. Our business team helps the family to start a small business, that will be profitable enough to create an initial income stream, and to look after the child that they’ve taken in. That’s the way our programme normally works, which is actually ideally-suited to this new work that we’re doing with children who have been orphaned by Ebola. Our teams already have a good standing in the community, so the community often calls our teams and says, ‘look there’s a kid here who’s been left alone, could you come help us?’ We’ll go and meet the kids, [identifying] their emergency needs is one of the first things that we do – food, clothing. Often after losing a parent or caregiver, when the body’s been taken away, a team will come and the process of disinfecting the home. They’ll actually burn all of the belongings in the home – in order to keep the virus from spreading, but it means that the children that we meet are often incredibly destitute, just have no resources whatsoever. We provide them with emergency food, clothing, bedding, whatever it is that they need. Then help to begin the process of making sure that they’re either settled in a foster care situation if needed, for the short term. If possible we help to trace extended family as soon as we’re able to.
In the longer term what we’ll be doing, and what we’re already starting to do, is to connect those families with ways to create an additional income to look after the child. Families are often at their most devastated right now anyway, including economically. Times are tough, times are really difficult in Sierra Leone. A lot of families that already were extraordinarily poor are the ones that we’re working with. So yeah, our business teams are already conducting assessments of families who have taken children, to try to find ways – if they have a small business – that we can help support with some additional, small grants, or loan some capital, to help them do it. We have small business teams that go around, provide advice, check in regularly. We have an incentivised savings scheme, to help families manage their finances responsibly, and help them get out of this crisis with as little economic impact as possible to the family units. And to restore some of their ability to take care of themselves, and look forward to the future, for when eventually this crisis is over.
When do you think that will be?
I’m probably not the right person to ask, but some of the news that’s been coming out of Liberia recently has been very encouraging. It’s unclear to me how, or why exactly, but it seems that the cases are beginning to level off. They have empty beds for Ebola patients now, which wasn’t the case not too many weeks ago. Things are still climbing in Sierra Leone, however a lot of the infrastructure necessary to the response is in place now that wasn’t there a month ago, or six weeks ago. Which is encouraging. I know the team in Freetown, in the Western area, is making substantial strides in the rate of safe burials, which is one of the primary ways that the virus is transmitted – [through] dead bodies not being managed safely. The team in Freetown has made substantial strides in increasing the rate at which bodies are being managed safely.
Is that partly to do with traditional burial practices?
Yeah, absolutely. Part of it is finding [alternative] ways that actually are culturally acceptable, that are respectful, but that also are safe. Which is a difficult thing to navigate, and I think the teams have found ways to help to communicate the importance of managing the process safely. But also ways to do it that are a lot more respectful to cultural beliefs.
Can you comment on how poverty has contributed to the fact Ebola could spread so quickly – and continue for so long?
Again, I’m not an [expert], but just in my own opinion: this wouldn’t happen in the UK. It wouldn’t happen in America. Definitely poverty, inequality, lack of education, are the underlying factors that are necessary to have [an epidemic] of this scale. It’s not actually difficult to protect yourself from Ebola, if you know how. It’s not airborne, it is only transmitted via direct contact with bodily fluids. You’re also only able to transmit the virus if you’re visibly ill. If you are symptomatic. That said, when you have a country – I believe the average person in Sierra Leone has attended three and a half years of primary school, and obviously that means half of people have attended less than that, or not at all. So the underlying education level is so low, it’s definitely a barrier to overcome. And you have people living in very, very remote places. It’s difficult to get the message out there, which is why I think the virus is able to take such a strong hold, so quickly, before they get the message about how to protect themselves. If you’ve not ever had a biology class, if you don’t understand the term ‘bodily fluids’, or know what germs are, or how viruses are transmitted, generally, it’s going to be that much more difficult for you to understand how to protect yourself from this virus specifically. Those have definitely been barriers to overcome.
Are you working with other NGOs that are operating in the area?
Absolutely. We have a few organisations we already work in partnership with, and those partnerships are continuing strongly. Some local, community-based organisations, and we have a strong partnership with DFID in-country – those things are continuing. There’s also a lot of coordination happening at a national and district level. We attend all of those meetings, we contribute to the national database for child protection, for example. Every time we identify a child who’s been orphaned, or left vulnerable by Ebola, we make their details available in the national database, so that there’s coordination across agencies. There are a lot of other organisations doing good work. I will say Street Child was uniquely set up in terms of national reach and scale. To be able to reach the quantity of children that we have is something that we’re uniquely placed to do. But there are a lot of other organisations doing really good work – especially on the medical side, there’s been a really strong response. A lot of it took a while to get going, but the machine [is] up and running. It’s encouraging.
Any thoughts on the general tone of the international media response? Do you think hype has gotten in the way of helping people?
As an American it has been really difficult to watch the American news media freak out about a single case in Texas while, in the country that’s been my primary home for the last, nearly three years now, we’ve got hundreds of cases on a weekly basis. Especially the way it’s been hyped; the fearmongering – people responding out of fear for themselves, fear for their families, when in reality in the West, the chances that you’d ever have a virus like this be transmitted on any scale whatsoever are really, really minimal. The health facilities are already there, ready to deal with infectious diseases of various sorts. If you call an emergency number you’ll get a response. It has been difficult to watch people focus on themselves, while you’ve got these nations in West Africa really being impacted significantly. The World Bank has projected that US $2 billion worth of GDP has been lost in the three countries already. Which is absurd. Sierra Leone was projected to be one of the three fastest growing economies in the world. A lot of that has to do with growth and tourism, with new companies coming into Sierra Leone and setting up, and a burgeoning export industry. You’ve got growth in mining sectors and palm oil, a number of different things. Companies are being forced to shut down. Airlines are cancelling flights – tourism has had an obvious plummet. It’s all understandable, but it is incredibly sad to watch. The impact of this outbreak is going to go far beyond – once the medical crisis is under control, I think then people will come around and start beginning to look at how to deal with what comes next. Which is rebuilding. It’s absolutely crazy to see the slowdown, and terribly, terribly sad. I’m glad for the attention on the one hand, because there are a lot of people who have been very generous, which is great. And it’s necessary. It’s not done yet, the international fight needs to continue, but it is really difficult to watch some of the hype aimed at creating fear in the West, rather than focussing on the actual disaster, which is the lives that are being ruined in West Africa.
Street Child are currently working with 8,000 children in Sierra Leone and Liberia who have been orphaned by Ebola. They’d like to reach 10,000 children (or more). Their teams are finding more children on a daily basis. To support a locally-led organisation already doing vital work, visit Street-child.co.uk and pitch in. Your support will make a big difference. Image source.
Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. Read more by Sarah. Find her on Twitter.