ALBANY, Ore. — An Albany native came back to Oregon this summer to get married, but now she and her family are stuck in the United States before they can go back home to Sierra Leone, one of the countries where the Ebola virus is spreading.
Emily Sheriff of Albany moved to Sierra Leone three years ago, where she is currently working as a nurse. She met Peter Sheriff while abroad, and came back to Oregon this summer to get married.
“We just got married on June 28th, and we were headed back on August 3rd,” Emily said.
That was the plan anyway – until the Ebola virus started spreading through West Africa.
“The big majority of the outbreak is over here in the Kailahun and Kenema districts,” Emily said as she pointed to a map of the eastern part of Sierra Leone.
The Sheriffs were living near the Guinean border in northern Sierra Leone, but have plans to move to the nation’s capital, Freetown, along the coast.
“You put together all this fear and panic and people being afraid to go to the hospital because there are always rumors that they’ll get infected with Ebola if they go to the hospital,” Emily said. “Hospitals have shut down because workers are afraid to go there.”
The couple longs to go back, but are more concerned about the nation’s tension rather than actually contracting the virus.
“One of Peter’s family members said it felt like the war again,” Emily said, referring to the country’s civil war. “People aren’t going out, nobody’s trusting anyone. The fear is so strong there.”
It is also the rainy season in Sierra Leone right now, making matters worse during an already difficult time.
“It’s really difficult to get transport; difficult to travel; difficult in general,” Emily said as she looked at a picture of a road covered in mud and water. “Here is a picture of me stuck. That was the car I was driving.”
Emily says the roads are impossible to travel on, which makes it more difficult for citizens to get help if sick. With the annual rainy season, the country sees more mosquitoes – and malaria.
“You have all these kids with malaria that don’t have anywhere to go because their parents aren’t going to take them,” Emily said. “The food prices and everything are skyrocketing. So even if they wanted to take them to get medicine, they don’t have the money. The Ebola crisis in itself is just one factor that’s going to affect everything.”
Meanwhile, the couple has more safety concerns. The Sheriffs say many citizens still refuse to accept Ebola’s existence. They heard about a family that went into a hospital and “kidnapped” their relative who had Ebola. Others will throw stones at the ambulances that drive by with bodies inside.
“There is a lot of ignorance and poverty, and it’s only going to help the virus spread,” Peter said.
Peter also says families are also upset about any relatives who have been cremated to prevent the virus from spreading after death.
“In our culture, it is not acceptable to burn the body,” Peter said. “We have our own rituals as part of our culture.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) says there have been 1,779 cases of Ebola in West Africa, and 961 deaths. In Sierra Leone, WHO says there have been 717 cases and 298 deaths.
The government in Sierra Leone has declared a state of emergency.
“On one hand, that’s a really good thing,” Emily said. “Because we know more help is on the way. But at the same time, it only escalates the fear in the country. There is a military presence. A lot more tension in an already difficult time. And when people feel helpless, they tend to do a lot of things that they wouldn’t otherwise do.”
Despite the couple’s desire to return to the country as soon as possible, they have another priority: Marie, their 6-year-old daughter they are in the process of adopting.
“It’s hard to start change my thinking,” Emily said. “And to start to have to think about not just putting myself in danger but I would be afraid to take Marie over there. I’ve lived in relative safety my whole life and Peter hasn’t. And so he, I think, can understand it and emphasize even more than I can. And their his people; his family. As much as I love them, my family’s here safe. Safe as they can be, and his isn’t. So it’s challenging.”
Meanwhile, the family is living in Albany, desperately waiting for a green light to return home. Emily is picking up shifts nearby to work as a nurse, but Peter is visiting as a tourist. He doesn’t have a VISA allowing him to work while he is in the US. He has a lot of time to think – wishing he could do something to help his family, who live in Sierra Leone.
“What can I really do to help? But I’m just really confused really. It’s really bothering me. A lot.”
At the same time, Emily has a strong desire to go back to help – as a nurse. She says many hospitals have shut down because health care providers are scared of getting Ebola. Emily worries about the Ebola patients, but also the growing number of people with malaria, who are unable to get treatment.
“You don’t want them to feel like you abandoned them,” she said between tears. “Oh gosh. You know, like you’ve left and we’re sitting here and we have AC and we’re eating as much as we want. And I’m with my family, and a lot of people aren’t.”
The couple says they share a sense of guilt as they sit comfortably in Albany – wishing they could do something to help those in Sierra Leone.
“I’m just like really tired of just sitting here without doing anything,” Peter said. “I’m not really used to that.”
Emily says she has heard that it will take six months before the Ebola outbreak will be in control, but the couple really has no idea when they will be able to return.
“Six months seems like an eternity,” Emily said. “We’re really just waiting for the first opportunity we can to go back home.”