When Ebola hit Liberia, the government ordered all schools to close. This included a girls’ school run by a small American nonprofit in the capital, Monrovia. But instead of packing up and going home to New Jersey, founder Katie Meyler decided to readjust the organisation’s mission to tackle the virus's spread.
Among other things, the NGO More Than Me takes in children whose parents are either ill or dead, and who have to be quarantined. Through a steady flow of photos posted to Instagram, Meyler shares an intimate look at what these children go through.
It all started when More Than Me staff were asked by ill neighbours to take in several children. The staff then asked the Ministry of Health for accreditation to set up a quarantine centre for children who have been in contact with Ebola patients. They officially launched the Hope21 centre two weeks ago, in their shuttered school’s guest house. The centre is one of several of its kind run by both Western agencies and the Liberian government in the capital, focusing on children who don’t have anyone to watch over them during their quarantine. (When possible, children are quarantined at family members’ homes.) The children stay in the centre for a minimum of 21 days, which is the Ebola virus’s maximum incubation period. During this time, they are closely observed to see if they develop any symptoms.
“When the children first come in, they’re numb”
At the moment, we are taking care of 11 kids at our centre, aged 4 to 17, and helping provide care for more kids at another Monrovia centre run by ChildFund International. It’s a terrifying time for these children. Most of them have lost one parent or both. When they first come in, they’re numb. For the first couple of days, there is little communication; it’s hard to even get their name. They don’t know if their loved ones are going to die, if they’re going to get Ebola themselves, or often who they’re even going to be living with once they leave the centre. We have social workers with them all day long, who help them talk about what they’re going through and gather information from them about relatives that we might be able to track down.
Children at a centre run by ChildFund International with help from More Than Me.
“They make wish lists of gifts they would like to receive after they make it through the 21 days”
At the centre, we try to give the kids structure by providing activities like daily art lessons. We ask the kids to draw their fears, and they draw these little spindly creatures – the Ebola virus, which they’ve seen on educational posters. We teach them games that involve no physical contact, like “no-touch football”. We also ask them to draw up wish lists of gifts they would like to receive after they make it through the 21 days. They ask for things like bicycles, dolls… one kid even asked for laughter! We give them all of it.
A child's wish list. The first item - "lather" - turned out to be "laughter".
More Than Me founder Katie Meyler's caption for this photo: "James beat Ebola and wanted his cycle and he got it!"
The people who take care of them are all Ebola survivors, so they are less worried about contamination than the rest of the population. The science says survivors build up immunity – although not necessarily to all strains, so they do still take all the necessary precautions. Myself, since I haven’t caught Ebola, I have to be very careful when I’m with the kids. I wear gloves, and explain to them that it’s not because they’re dirty – that it’s because I’ve been in the outside world, and I could bring Ebola in if I’m not careful. We want them to feel protected, not stigmatized.
One of the kids gets her hair braided by a gloved caretaker.
We teach children to wash their hands and avoid touching each other. We have had children come down with worrying symptoms, and promptly get them tested, but so far none of them have tested positive for Ebola. At the other centre we help run, one little kid did come down with Ebola, and died several days later.
An ice cream break.
“Sometimes, family members come forward because they think they’re going to get money to care for the children”
We have been lucky so far in that we have had a lot of family members – usually aunts or uncles – step forward to take care of the kids after they’re declared Ebola-free. But sometimes, they come because they think they’re going to get money to care for the children. The Ministry of Health sends workers to check out the home environment before we send children to live with relatives. If we can’t identify any relatives, the next step is family friends, then foster care, and as a last resort, orphanages. [Editor’s Note: Liberia’s orphanages are known for their deplorable conditions.]
After the incubation period is over, most of the orphaned children go to live with relatives. Of this photo, More Than Me founder Katie Meyler writes: "Janet, 30 years old, lost her mother and sister. Struggling on the little she makes selling small peppers, she is now fighting to care for her four nieces and nephews."
What we would really like to do, once the government decides to reopen schools, is start a boarding school for the kids who have been most affected by the Ebola outbreak. We’re currently looking to buy land, and hoping to launch the school in September.
Meyler writes: "When obstacles come, jump!"
In recent weeks, the government has released encouraging numbers about Ebola cases. While this is promising, it has also encouraged people to go back out on the streets, reverting to their regular routines. I’m seeing more and more kids running around, which is understandable – they no longer go to school, and can’t stay indoors forever. Still, this worries me: I hope we don’t see a new spike in cases.
Liberia already had a major orphan problem before Ebola hit, due to its civil wars, the last of which ended in 2003. UNICEF estimates that the virus has robbed at least 4,000 children across Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea of one or both parents.