10/15/2014 03:19 pm ET Updated Oct 15, 2014

Liberians Living In U.S. Fear Ebola Stigma


WASHINGTON -- News about the latest Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which has hit Liberia harder than any other country, has caused some awkward moments for Liberians living in the United States.

Karen Mygil, a surgeon in Bowie, Maryland, was recently making idle chitchat with her nurses while examining a patient. The discussion soon turned to the Ebola crisis, the hot topic in the news that everyone was following.

"The patient gave some feedback about what he had heard about the news, and I said, 'Well, you know, I'm from Liberia,'" recounted Mygil. "He jerked himself back from my hands, and he said, 'You're from Liberia?'"

Mygil said she explained that it's been almost two years since she was last in the country, which seemed to reassure the patient a bit.

"This is a patient well-known to me," added Mygil, who is an oral and maxillofacial surgeon. "I've treated him a number of times. But this was a physical reaction he had in drawing away from me as I was operating on him. ... I truly think people are overreacting."

Marlene Cooper Vasilic, who grew up in Liberia but also hasn't been back to the country in nearly two years, noticed people similarly pulling away from her while at the gym earlier this month.

"I wore a Liberia shirt in solidarity to the gym ... and got a wide berth from quite a few people," said Vasilic, who now lives in Washington, D.C. and works at the Center for American Progress.

Most Americans say they don't actually fear Ebola, according to a Pew Research Center poll. At the same time, people do want the U.S. government to respond more aggressively to the outbreak, which has infected more than 8,000 individuals in West Africa and killed more than 4,000. Two-thirds of Americans told an ABC News/Washington Post poll they favored a ban on travel to and from West Africa, something the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says would hinder efforts to stop the disease at its source.

And 32 percent of Americans did tell Pew that they were very or somewhat worried that they or someone in their family will be exposed to Ebola, despite the government's insistence that a widespread outbreak in the U.S. is extremely unlikely.

Many Liberians in the U.S. are closely following the Ebola crisis that is ravaging their home country, waiting for updates from friends and family and lending financial and emotional support to those dealing with the epidemic. But some are also becoming frustrated that there now seems to be a stigma attached not only to Liberia, but by extension, to Liberians living abroad.

The Los Angeles Times recently reported that Liberians in the Dallas area, where two people have been infected with Ebola, have faced the taunt: "Go back to Liberia."

"If I am Liberian, that doesn't mean that I have Ebola," Carolyn Woahloe, a registered nurse, told the paper. "This is not a Liberian problem. This is a world problem."

Liberian-Americans aren't the only ones affected by the stigma. According to CNBC, at least two Nigerian students currently living in Texas received letters from a college in the state rejecting them because of Ebola.

"Unfortunately, Navarro College is not accepting international students from countries with confirmed Ebola cases," read one of the letters.

Not everyone has faced negativity, of course. Zealous Kolubah, a 37-year-old Liberian who has lived in Fort Myers, Florida, since emigrating last spring, said he has not encountered any Ebola-related paranoia from people in his community. Instead, he said, Americans have been curious and sympathetic.

"The only inquiry I would get is from people's desire to know how it came about in my country," Kolubah said. "People just want to know more about it."

Ebola is as new to Kolubah as it is to the people asking him questions. He is from the city of Zorzor in Liberia's Lofa County, which borders Guinea and Sierra Leone and which officials have called the epicenter of the outbreak. Though the world has known about Ebola since the 1970s, the current outbreak started in March -- about a year after Kolubah left.

Still, he feels a strong connection to Liberia. "Since my birth I have never left my country," Kolubah said. "I feel a part of the people. Some of the people who have died I knew personally."

Beyond what's happening in the U.S., Mygil said she regretted that her home country was being branded with a negative reputation.

"I think everybody is reacting irrationally. It's a shame," Mygil said. "Liberia has one stigma after another; it's so much more than Ebola and war."

HuffPost readers: Got an Ebola-related story? Tell us about it -- email arthur@huffingtonpost.com. Please include your phone number if you're willing to be interviewed.



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