A new hotline fights Ebola-related stigma against African immigrants

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Carol Hills: I’m Carol Hills in for Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH   here in Boston. There are no more Ebola cases in the US, but that doesn’t mean the fear is gone. And immigrants to the US from Africa are still facing harassment and discrimination because of Ebola. Now a Bronx-based nonprofit organization for African immigrants has launched a phone and web hotline to help. Amaha Kassa is the executive director for African Communities Together. Amaha, what kind of stories are you hearing from the immigrants you’re working with?


Amaha Kassa: We’ve heard a range of stories, both from the immigrants we’re working with here in New York, and then as we’ve been collecting stories happening all across the country. The incidents have ranged from small -- street harassments that people have experienced, insults and jokes, all the way up to more serious issues, to children in the Bronx who were essentially assaulted by their classmates while they yelled “Ebola!”; people who have been kept off of work and who are not able to return to work, have been essentially suspended because --


Hills: Where are the kids from at the school you mentioned?


Kassa: There were two little boys from Senegal, and they were recently in the country. But as with a lot of these cases, it was unrelated to any actual contact with anyone infected with Ebola, or have even traveled to regions that have been infected by Ebola. We’ve seen cases where it’s about travel to Rwanda, Kenya, Nigeria, places that are often thousands of miles from Ebola-affected areas, and it’s just because people are African.


Hills: How are you trying to help? What are you offering to do for these kind of people who are facing this stigma?


Kassa: We think the first step is to make this problem, this crisis, more visible. There’s no good numbers about how many people have experienced this, but if you talk to people in the communities, if you talk to the organizations serving African immigrants, everyone has stories of this happening. So, the first thing we want to do is just collect and document and publicize the stories so that people are aware of the scope of the problem. Then it’s going to depend on what kind of experiences people are having, what kinds of problems people are facing. In some cases, it might be a criminal matter -- people have been physically assaulted. In some cases, there may be violations of anti-discrimination law. In other cases, it’s not going to be a legal matter at all, but it could be a matter of connecting people with support services. One problem that we’ve been hearing a lot about is African businesses, such as hair braiders, that have lost business due to fear and misinformation about Ebola. That might be a case where we can help those businesses with health education for their customers or support services.


Hills: In the case of businesses that are asking or telling employees, who they fear are somehow linked to Ebola, not to come to work -- that’s illegal. You can’t force somebody to not come to work.


Kassa: In some cases, it definitely is illegal. What’s particularly surprising or shocking about some of these cases is they often involve healthcare providers -- hospitals, hospices, those kinds of businesses that should have better information about dealing with infectious diseases. In many cases, people are receiving pay during the time that they’re not working, but frankly they would just rather be on the job. We’ve also seen cases where children have been kept from registering for school because of panic among parents; several cases, actually, around the country. In all those cases, there was no actual risk of Ebola. They were often involving countries thousands of miles away from the region where infections have been reported. But again, it’s a sort of guilt by association.


Hills: It’s interesting, because just in preparing for this interview, I sort of looked up “Ebola” and “hotline,” and you also see Ebola hotlines for information about Ebola issued by states. It’s almost like you’re getting two versions when you search for hotlines. You’re getting “Here’s how to not get Ebola, not be exposed,” and then there’s hotlines for “Tell us how you’ve been discriminated against.”


Kassa: The two things are actually related. Our message is “Target Ebola, not Africans,” as African immigrants and many of our members are from the countries that have been touched by Ebola in West Africa. We want to see the Ebola virus eradicated in Africa. We don’t want to see an outbreak in our communities here. But the thing is that profiling, harassment -- that doesn’t make anybody safer or healthier. In fact, it creates greater risks. People are now afraid sometimes to get routine medical treatment for things like the flu or asthma because they’re afraid they’re going to be profiled, quarantined, that they’re going to experience harassment, and those aren’t baseless fears because those incidents have happened. So, we think part of the best way to actually stem the flow of the disease is to engage African communities as part of the solution and not treat them as part of the problem.


Hills: Amaha Kassa is the executive director for African Communities Together in New York. Thanks for your time, Amaha.


Kassa: Thanks very much Carol.