Helping Ebola-affected countries from halfway around the world

It’s not easy to watch the news every night as a deadly virus rages through your homeland—a place burdened further by the lack of resources and healthcare infrastructure—especially when you’re thousands of miles away.

In the face of the Ebola crisis in West Africa, Frank Magass, a native of Guinea and a professional in King County IT, and Ngozi Oleru, the division manager for Environmental Health who hails from Nigeria, shared their concerns with one another.

“It was hard to sit by when so many people are suffering,” said Magass. “We wanted to make a difference in educating people here and helping people at home.”

Frank Magass, standing second from right, and Ngozi Oleru, standing far right, helped lead the fundraising for Ebola relief.
Frank Magass, standing second from right, and Ngozi Oleru, standing far right, at the West African Ebola Fundraiser.

About the same time, Robin Pfohman, manager of the Vulnerable Populations Action Team in the Public Health Preparedness section, was trying to find out how the local West African community was impacted by the Ebola outbreak. She had met the ever-friendly Magass in the elevator, so she gave him a call.

As a first step, in the fall of 2014, they convened a meeting of local leaders in the Liberian, Sierra Leonean, and Guinean communities to discuss the needs of the local community.  What was intended as a one time meeting became the first planning meeting for a joint fundraiser to support the fight against Ebola in Africa. Azeb Aberra, another King County employee, connected them to the Ethiopian Community, who offered a space. Soon after, Catholic Community Services, the Somali Health Board, the African Diaspora Council of the Northwest, and the Rainier Beach Presbyterian Church had also signed on to help.

The resulting West African Ebola Fundraiser was held on December 6 with storytelling, traditional West African dance performances, and delicious regional cuisine. Bilingual flyers were given at the fundraiser to provide accurate information about Ebola to West Africans living in King County and explain the health department’s role in monitoring the health of travelers from Ebola-affected areas. As a featured speaker at the event, Oleru also helped to establish Public Health as a trusted source of information in the community.

Ministre Action Sociale sanaba Kaba  on left and  Ministre of coopération Internationale Docteur Moustapha koutoubou SANO on right
Guinea’s Minister of Social Action, Sanaba Kaba, and Minister of International Cooperation, Dr. Moustapha Koutoubou Sano, receiving the shipment of medical masks.

The event raised $23,000 for UNICEF’s on-the-ground relief efforts in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia. In addition, when the Preparedness section learned that the King County Sheriff’s office had a surplus of protective medical masks (leftover from the federal response to the H1N1 influenza pandemic), they connected Detective Sergeant Kevin Johannes and Captain Michelle Bennett to the West African leaders. Each of the three West African countries received 78,000 of the much-needed masks that would have otherwise gone unused.

“The strength and compassion of our local African community is inspiring.  When Frank and I first convened the local leaders, they had never met each other,” said Pfohman. “The lasting benefit of this event is in the new relationships that will strengthen resilience within the community, and with all of the organizations involved.”

A special event to recognize those who supported this effort and present the donations to UNICEF will be held at the Ethiopian Community Center on Saturday, February 28, 12:00 -1:00 pm, 8323 Rainier Avenue South, Seattle. For more information, please contact haltebola@gmail.com.

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I am a risk communications specialist at Public Health - Seattle & King County.