For a Liberian Student in the Age of Ebola, ‘Where Are You From?’ Is a Scary Question

Marvin Tarawally on Babson College’s campus.
Marvin Tarawally on Babson College’s campus. –Photo courtesy of Marvin Tarawally

For most college students, “Where are you from?’’ is the perfect icebreaker. In fact, Marvin Tarawally, a 21-year-old international student at Babson College, used to welcome it—the question gave him a chance to discuss his culture and identity.

But since the largest Ebola outbreak in history began in West Africa this year, Tarawally’s first encounters with new people have changed. Tarawally is from Liberia, a country with 6,525 cases of Ebola to date. Approximately 2,697 people have died. Though he doesn’t have the disease, and his home is more than 4,000 miles away, Ebola has managed to follow him to Massachusetts.

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“For people who don’t know you, when you introduce yourself and say you’re from Liberia, there’s this sort of weird reaction,’’ said Tarawally. “They either pity you or they have this weird reaction that sometimes I think it’s a reasonable lack of awareness about Ebola.’’

Not that colleges throughout the Boston area didn’t address the outbreak at all. Following the Boston Public Health Commission’s advisory that all returning students from afflicted countries should be evaluated, colleges outlined their Ebola response policies this summer in preparation for the arrival international students. (Approximately 31 students from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone—the countries most affected by the Ebola outbreak— attended colleges in Massachusetts in the past year, according to the Institute of International Education.) But those policies did not, it seems to the students returning from West Africa, include increasing awareness on campus. Alongside the typical stress of school work and living in a foreign country, West African students in the United States are now facing ignorance about Ebola and insensitivity from their peers—while back home their families are still living in the center of the outbreak.

“Almost everybody talks about Ebola as if they’re really at risk, but you cannot get Ebola if you don’t interact with someone who is sick,’’ Tarawally says. “Which of course not many people know that because [all of the media coverage] is all about panic, and people think they need to stay away from anybody who is Liberian or Guinean.’’

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For Tarawally, once he says, “I’m from Liberia,’’ his achievements, his family, and his life seem secondary to someone else’s fear about the fact that he’s from an Ebola-afflicted country. But those achievements are significiant. Tarawally attended high school at a boarding school in Johannesburg, South Africa, and co-founded an educational reform nonprofit that launched leadership development initiatives for students at his former high school in Liberia, where more than a decade of civil war continues to hold back the country’s schools.

At Babson, Tarawally majors in entrepreneurship and business management. He plays forward for the soccer team and made his college debut in a 6–0 victory over Emerson College at the final game of his freshman season. He’s also on the executive board of the Babson African Student Organization, and as a freshman was named a 2012 Global Changemaker and an Emerging Leader Scholar at Babson.

After that stellar freshman year, however, things began to change. Tarawally, who is one of eight siblings, returned home for the summer to Paynesville, a Liberian town approximately 8 miles from the capital city, Monrovia. June 14 was his first day at his summer internship for the USAID/Liberia Advancing Youth Project that provides access to basic education and leadership classes to Liberian communities. That week, according to the World Health Organization, three people contracted Ebola and five people died in Montserrado County. Liberia’s total number of cases that week climbed to 33, with 24 deaths.

During the second week of Tarawally’s internship, he took field trips to teach classes for residents in rural towns. “The first challenge was to put my mom appease with my going to these ‘rural’ communities,’’ Tarawally wrote in his blog about the summer. “She was worried about the road conditions, food, water and almost every other thing…. However, my excitement for the experience surpassed my fears of discomfort. Made my decision and finally got myself prepared for the travels.’’

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When he returned home from the field trips, 41 people in Liberia had contracted Ebola and 25 people had died.

Marvin Tarawally, a 21-year-old international student at Babson College, does field work at his summer internship for the USAID/Liberia Advancing Youth Project. —Photo courtesy of Marvin Tarawally

Although Tarawally tried to live normally, in July his internship asked him to stop coming in because of the disease risk. People stopped going out. Tarawally stopped visiting friends.

“Even the government laid off a lot of employees to reduce the number of people working,’’ said Tarawally. “People are staying away from public gatherings … So you have a lot of people staying home and not going out. And they then don’t have an income to buy for their families. Kids are not even going to schools.’’

On August 5, British Airways canceled flights to Sierra Leone and Liberia. The next day, Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, declared a state of emergency. More than 900 people had died in West Africa. A few days later, the World Health Organization declared an international public health emergency. It seemed increasingly risky for Tarawally to stay at home for the rest of the summer, so he scheduled an earlier flight back to the United States.

When Tarawally arrived in Boston on August 25, he was allowed to move in to Babson’s dorms early, but he was largely living alone—his classmates were still home for the summer. A few days later, Babson administration officials gave him a call and asked him a series of questions about his time in Liberia. They asked how he was feeling, and if he’d had any close contact with Ebola patients (he had not). There was no medical exam, a striking difference from the quarantine policies that have been introduced since.

“The assumption at that point was once you get past the airport and other screening processes, there’s already been a significant amount of tests going on,’’ said Tarawally. “So I just had a lot of questions about my time in Liberia and interacting with people in the community.’’

On August 29, his friends returned to campus.

“They showed me so much care and cared about my family and were always checking in on how I was doing,’’ said Tarawally. “That was a really big part of my transition back to Babson. But back then there wasn’t so much fear or public concern about Ebola locally, which now brings a whole different situation for people from West Africa in the Boston area.’’

A month into the semester, Tarawally received a call that a childhood friend in Liberia had died from Ebola. He was 23 years old and contracted the virus caring for a family member; he was one of 3,458 cases in Liberia by the end of September.

“This summer we were actually spending a lot of time together,’’ Tarawally said. “It was really a shock. He was really smart and had great potential to make a huge difference to society, and it just goes down the drain.’’

Within days of this news, Thomas Eric Duncan, who had recently traveled to the United States from Liberia, was diagnosed with the Ebola virus, most likely contracted while helping a stricken pregnant women find a hospital bed. He died in Dallas, Texas, on October 6.

In the media blitz that followed the first Ebola death in the United States, “Where are you from?’’ became a loaded question for Tarawally.

Often, people on campus react to his answer with jokes that stem from their own comfort, Tarawally said. But that doesn’t make them funny.

“You hear sometimes, ‘Oh he sneezed on me, so he might give me Ebola,’ and it’s not to be mean, or to make fun of a really important situation, but in reality that is what they’re doing,’’ he said. “My family is in imminent danger, and so jokes about Ebola are not the best thing for me to hear.’’

But instead of getting angry or lying about where he’s from, Tarawally takes that opportunity to educate people about how serious Ebola is, how it spreads, and how people like him are working to stop the outbreak. He’s the kind of guy that channels emotions into action.

At the beginning of October, the Babson African Student Organization (whose executive board Tarawally sits on) launched The BASO Ebola Campaign to raise money to provide emergency health care kits to households in affected countries. “With all the awareness about Ebola prevention, parents and other caregivers still take the risks of caring for infected loved ones, knowing that their kindness could potentially cause infection,’’ says the mission statement on the campaign’s GoFundMe page.

“We live in a culture where people care about others. These random acts of kindness is what Liberian society is built on,’’ said Tarawally. “We’ve realized these are not normal times any more. But until the medical providers can get [to someone’s home], we have to provide [their family members] with things to lower their risk, because they are going to intervene and care for their loved ones if they’re suffering.’’

The campaign’s goal is to make sure every person and every household has access to emergency protection kits with masks, gloves, gowns, and eye protection. Tarawally’s educational nonprofit initiative in Liberia, Student Reform Initiative, will help distribute the health care kits throughout the country.

Here in the U.S., Tarawally just hopes that people will take the time to get past the fact he’s from Liberia and learn about the work his group is doing. But that might take some time.

A couple of weeks ago, for example, Tarawally was at a lunch on campus with new friends and everyone was making introductions. When Tarawally said he was from Liberia, a fellow student asked him to leave the table, because he might give them all Ebola.

“I know that she was joking,’’ he told Boston.com, “but you kind of get a reminder that, oh yeah, this is what you have to carry on with everybody you’re introduced to. So now I’m not going to be shocked if I introduce myself in the city, and they want to run.’’

Unfortunately, he said, colleges and the media aren’t doing a great job educating people about Ebola, so that’s why he’s taking on that task himself.

“Some people really didn’t know how the virus is spread,’’ he said. “They also don’t know how it’s being reduced or prevented. I think that’s it’s important at my college to raise awareness.’’

Tarawally said he’s looking forward to any opportunity to educate: “It’s time to call for humanity, and the people of West Africa, to take a stand.’’

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