Orphaned by Ebola

Photo by Michael Stulman/CRS

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Lucy Yoko’s world was turned upside down when her parents died from Ebola. Just 10 years old, she was left to fend for herself in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone. No family. No school. No money.

When the fear of Ebola caused everyone else to turn their backs, one person came to her aid: her aunt Nancy Yoko, who traveled 150 miles from her home in Bo, Sierra Leone, to find her niece.

Nancy Yoko and her daughter, Lucy, in Bo, Sierra Leone.
Nancy Yoko and her daughter, Lucy, in Bo, Sierra Leone.
“I met Lucy crying at her house in Freetown,” she says. “There was no one to take care of her there. There was no support.”

Nancy became Lucy’s caregiver and eventually adopted her, despite her friends arguing that she was in no position to take in a child. Catholic Relief Services was there to help.

Family point of view’

Nancy had lost her husband to Ebola and had just emerged from 21 days in quarantine. She had become the breadwinner for her four young children overnight.

“My husband was a teacher, but we earned most of our income by farming yams and groundnuts,” Nancy explains. But travel restrictions put in place to stem the spread of Ebola meant Nancy couldn’t work on her farm because it was located outside of Bo.

To make matters worse, after Nancy’s husband died from Ebola, all their belongings—potentially carrying the deadly virus—were destroyed to prevent the disease from spreading. 

“At the peak of the outbreak, we were suffering. My friends kept far from me, neither talking to me nor visiting me,” she says.

But she still felt a responsibility toward her niece.

“The reason I took Lucy was a family point of view. If I passed away, I hope my sister would take my boys,” Nancy says. “It was difficult. We had lost everything, but CRS helped.”

CRS provided financial support to people who, like Nancy, took in orphaned children. They used the funds to increase their income and help them take care of their suddenly growing families.

“With the money we received from CRS, I could make investments in my farm, and the profits help me support all my children,” Nancy says.

Insurance against poverty’

But Nancy faced more than financial hurdles. Lucy was deeply affected by the death of her parents and isolated by the stigma of Ebola. When she arrived in her new home, she wouldn’t eat or leave her room.

CRS and Caritas–Bo trained 24 volunteers from the Catholic Women’s Association to counsel children who, like Lucy, were physically and psychologically traumatized by Ebola. The counselors focused on helping the children manage their trauma so they could recover.

A social worker with Caritas–Bo invited Lucy to join a group of children to play games, create art, tell stories, and listen to music together. The sessions helped children work through their feelings on the road to healing. For 6 months, Lucy attended the sessions, which included films and interactive activities, and taught the children techniques for coping with stress.

“These activities made a vast difference. When the social workers would come to the house, Lucy would run and hug them,” says Nancy, who also participated in training sessions with the counselors.

“Parents are a mirror for their children, so I needed to be a good role model,” she says.

With support from CRS, Lucy enrolled in school and received materials, including a backpack, notebook and pens.

“Education is insurance against poverty,” Nancy says. 

In the school’s classroom just down the road from her house, Lucy is joined by dozens of other students learning mathematics, science and her favorite subject, English.

“Lucy can concentrate in school, and she has strong relationships with people in the community,” Nancy says. “She now resembles someone who is taken care of, thanks to CRS.”

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