World·Special Report

Liberia's Ebola outbreak saddles children with an uncertain future

Most Ebola survivors in Liberia have reason to celebrate – Ebola has a high fatality rate and the disease has likely claimed nearly 2,000 lives in that country alone. But as the death toll mounts, young survivors who lost their parents are facing stigma, fear and a deeply uncertain future.

'Being a bystander to suffering is not an option,' charity founder says

Ebola's orphans

9 years ago
Duration 4:47
CBC's Adrienne Arsenault, on the ground in Liberia, looks at the struggles ahead for children hit by the Ebola outbreak

There's a beauty to the Liberian capital that belies what's happening in the face of an ugly, killer disease. There is the sparkle of the ocean's waves, the long sandy beach — but the laughter of a little girl is missing.

As the World Health Organization on Wednesday published sobering new data on Ebola in West Africa, CBC's team on the ground in Monrovia was in the leafy, seaside neighbourhood of Capitol Hill. 

So were community health workers.

In front of a house that lost somebody to the disease, they acted out skits, delivering messages of prevention and what to do if symptoms show up.

All too often recently, this country has seen worst-case scenarios. In Liberia, there are now 1,998 deaths likely attributable to Ebola, the WHO says.

And so the adults gathered, children paused their soccer game, and all of them listened. The front lawn play acting was a tiny neighbourhood effort aimed at bringing the epidemic under control.

Kids face stigma

But overall, the WHO’s new situation report warns there are "few signs yet" that's happening in West Africa. And in Monrovia specifically, there continues to be "widespread under-reporting of new cases" and the situation "continues to deteriorate."

Esther, who lost her parents to Ebola, is staying at a charity-run guest house in Monrovia while officials try to track down family members. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

It’s why just down the street from the community players, the sound of generators and drills signal a unique approach to action.

About a dozen workers are busy renovating a large seaside home into a guest house, of sorts. The goal, really, is to turn the building into a safe haven for children whose family members have succumbed to Ebola and need isolation with constant medical monitoring for 21 days.

A non-profit group known as More Than Me has long been working to educate the neediest of Monrovia’s girls. The Ebola crisis has spurred this new effort, "filling a gap that needs to be filled," according the organization’s founder, American Katie Meyler.

She plans up to 60 beds in the guest house and ambitiously hopes to open next week. Already, though, one little girl has sadly settled in.

'Just crying and crying'

Her name is Esther, and Meyler says she’s probably between eight and 10 years old. Nobody’s quite sure because her mother and father died of Ebola. Doctors thought she wouldn’t make it, either. But somehow, Esther beat the disease.

Renovations are underway on a building in Monrovia that will temporarily house children in need. The Ebola outbreak has left many children without adequate shelter, support or medical care. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Meyler spotted her about a week ago during a visit to an Ebola treatment clinic that happened to be holding an event to celebrate survival.

"Everybody was being released. Family members were waiting outside the gate. It was a ceremony, and there was nobody there for Esther," Meyler said. "She was just crying and crying."

Meyler's heart lurched.  She's been told the Ministry of Health is working on a plan for the country's new Ebola orphans. According to UNICEF estimates, as many as 2,000 children in Liberia alone have lost at least one parent to Ebola.

But because she has space in that big house under renovation and access to continuing health care for Esther, Meyler was allowed to give the little girl a bed for now.

Katie Meyler is the founder of More Than Me, a charity renovating a house in Monrovia to try to accommodate up to 60 children who have been hit by the Ebola crisis. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

"This is a miracle child, so of course we'll give her love, a social worker, a teacher. We have colouring books and dolls. We'll make her as happy as possible until the Ministry of Health takes her."

So while Esther appears to be getting physically stronger, not surprisingly she continues to suffer an emotional toll.  She's very quiet, heartbroken eyes speaking volumes about her pain.

Still, Meyler and her team are working to put a smile on the little girl's face, hoping even for some laughter eventually. They say they have to try — for Esther, and for the many more children who will follow.

"This is a time of emergency," Meyler said. "Being a bystander to suffering is not an option."