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At great risk, Sierra Leone refugee keeps a promise made to her mother

She vowed never to return to Africa. ¶ Phebian Abdulai fled Sierra Leone as civil war tore apart her country and spent four years in a refugee camp before resettling in Buffalo in 2001. ¶ But last year, Abdulai returned to the Kono District of eastern Sierra Leone, realizing a promise she had made to her mother – to help her people. ¶ With the support of Jericho Road Ministries Community Health Center on Buffalo’s West Side, where she had worked as a nurse, Abdulai set up a clinic to provide basic medical care in her hometown. ¶ Then, as construction was underway, troubling reports emerged starting in March that Ebola, the deadly virus, was spreading in Guinea, which borders Sierra Leone. ¶ That was followed by reports of Ebola in Liberia. And in May, in Sierra Leone. ¶ “Everything with the clinic had to come to a hold,” Abdulai said. ¶ The clinic was not equipped to deal with the highly contagious and deadly disease. It was designed simply to provide basic health care in an area where such services were desperately needed. ¶ Abdulai had to decide whether she should run away from Sierra Leone again – or see her dream through. ¶ She stayed.

“What is driving me to actually do that is the value that was instilled in me by mother,” she said. “My mother was a lady who had passion to help in the face of trouble, in the face of hard times.”

That a native of Sierra Leone has returned to her country to offer desperately needed medical care to her people is significant, said Dr. Myron Glick, founder of Jericho Road.

“Phebian grew up in this place,” he said. “That was her home. She knows the history. She knows how to build relationships there. She has so much knowledge about the culture and the people.”

At the same time, she has lived in the United States and knows how organizations here work.

But to know her story, of how she fled amid civil war, survived in a refugee camp and was lucky enough to resettle in the United States, shows how brave she is to willingly return to Sierra Leone in the midst of an Ebola epidemic.

“Phebian – she’s a really courageous person,” Glick said. “She survived the civil war, which was a horrible time. ... She barely escaped with her life. I think she really felt God saved her for a reason.”

A look back at her journey

Abdulai is now back in Buffalo for a chance to recoup and to spend holidays with her husband and children in Orchard Park.

As the 50-year-old woman readies to return to Sierra Leone later this month to open her health center, Abdulai reflected on a journey that led her back to her homeland and the new worries she will face as the Ebola crisis continues to worsen there.

She arrived in Washington, D.C., just before Thanksgiving and was screened by workers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She was found to be at the lowest risk for Ebola because she had not treated any Ebola patients.

She participated in a self-monitoring program for three weeks – covering the incubation period of the virus. Twice a day, every day, for 21 days since arriving in the United States, she checked her temperature and texted the results to an Erie County Health Department worker. Despite all of the colds and viruses afflicting many in the Buffalo area this season, she managed to stay healthy.

“I did not catch a cold,” she happily reported. “No temperature. No cold. No nothing.”

Had she come down with a fever or other symptoms, she faced being quarantined.

Ebola continues to ravage Sierra Leone. More than 20,000 people have been diagnosed with Ebola in West Africa since the outbreak began last year.

Sierra Leone has been hit especially hard. The country’s health care system was already woefully lacking when the disease began to spread. There are just two doctors in all of Kono, which has a population of just over 500,000.

Civil war rips family apart

Before an 11-year civil war ripped apart her country, Abdulai enrolled in a nursing school in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. She hoped to follow in the footsteps of her mother, Martha, who had been a midwife.

“I really, really wanted to go back and continue what she was doing,” she said.

Her mother had told her often: “Our people are suffering. I really want you to be a helper to me when you’re done with your education. Come back and you can help the poor. You can help the suffering.”

As she got her nursing degree, she got married and had two children.

The war broke out in Kono, and there was no way she could return safely.

In 1997, rebels entered Freetown. About a month into the siege, when Abdulai was pregnant with her third child, there was a break in the fighting. Abdulai and her husband, Breima Abdulai, rushed their family out of the house. Their daughter Martha was 6. Ruth was 4.

Abdulai’s husband took them to a hiding place in a banana tree grove. He told them he needed to run back to their house to get more money.

“Wait for me here,” he told them.

But as they waited, they heard gunfire. It was getting closer.

“I had to get the kids out,” she said. “We started running from that point.”

She had to flee, not knowing whether she’d see her husband again.

She met up with her sister’s daughter, Kumba, who was 16. Her sister had gone missing, and Abdulai couldn’t turn away her niece.

Abdulai and her children eventually boarded an overcrowded boat that took them by ocean to neighboring Guinea. Her goal was to get to a refugee camp in Gambia. The night they arrived in Guinea, rebels staged an attack, and Abdulai hid in a crumbling house with the children.

“The gunshots – you can hear them right at the doorstep.”

As they made their way to Gambia, she took the children aboard another boat.

“A boat that can carry barely 50 people had, like, thousands of people on board,” she said. “I had the kids between my legs. I was standing with the other baby on my back and my six-month pregnancy.”

The moment she stepped on shore, she collapsed. When she awoke, she saw the children crying next to her. They were all in a detention center. The Guinean officials had suspected Abdulai was a rebel. She didn’t know how she’d survive.

“If I die now, my kids are going to the street. Nobody knows us here. What are my children going to do?”

After being interrogated, they were allowed to leave. They headed to a truck stop, hoping to catch a ride across the border to Gambia.

Eventually, a truck driver agreed to take them across the border.

But as soon as they crossed into Gambia, they were detained by authorities. Christian missionaries reached out to a pastor at a church by the refugee camp Abdulai was trying to get to. The pastor agreed to vouch for her and the children and made arrangements with the camp director for the family to be relocated there.

It was a relief to Abdulai to finally make it to the camp, but life was still difficult there. There were no permanent buildings, just tents. There was little food – mostly just rice and peanuts – so families gathered firewood from the forests to sell at market to buy vegetables and fish. Scorpions were rampant, and Abdulai had to take extra care to make sure they weren’t lurking in her children’s bedding.

She gave birth to her son, Emmanuel, in the camp. She also became the camp’s nurse and tended to the sick, whose numbers grew as the population mushroomed and malnutrition became a problem.

Abdulai met a Peace Corps volunteer from Britain at the camp one day. The volunteer was planning to go to Sierra Leone and said she would try to find Abdulai’s husband.

“Give me your husband’s name and the address of where you used to live. Maybe I can track him down,” she told Abdulai.

She found Breima Abdulai. He had stayed near the family’s Freetown home in the hopes of someday being reunited with his wife and children again.

“She took a picture of him for me to believe that he was alive,” she said.

The Peace Corps volunteer returned to the Gambian refugee camp and shared the happy news, and the couple arranged to talk on the phone.

“I can’t express the feeling,” she said, recalling when she heard Breima’s voice. “I was so happy. I was thinking he was dead.”

Security was even tighter now at the border, but a friend from the camp sneaked through the bush to meet up with Breima Abdulai and helped get him to the camp.

After almost a year apart, the Abdulais were back together.

“It was God’s grace that took us through,” Phebian Abdulai said.

In 2001, the family learned that they had been selected for resettlement in the United States.

“We didn’t know where we were coming until the day and they said: ‘Here is the bus to go to the airport.’ ”

Their new home: Buffalo, N.Y.

“Where is Buffalo exactly?” Abdulai remembered thinking.

Flying to the United States, she was filled with emotions.

“The day we were leaving the Gambia airport, I said: ‘Thank you, Lord. I’m leaving this God-forsaken Africa, never to return. I’m never coming back to Africa.’ ”

In Buffalo, greeted by ‘cold’

She arrived in Buffalo on May 10, 2001.

It was in the 40s that day.

“Is this spring?” she remembered thinking.

The children, who were used to 90-degree weather year-round, were shivering.

“That was the coldest temperature we ever experienced,” she recalled.

Waiting at the airport for them were members of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in West Seneca and Journey’s End Refugee Services. They brought them to a welcome house on the West Side. They also arranged for their health screening at Jericho Road Ministries Health Center on Barton Street.

Glick seemed to take special interest in her family, Abdulai recalled.

When he learned that Abdulai had been a nurse, he asked if she planned to get certification here to continue her nursing career. She said yes.

He told her if she did go back to school and received her papers, she should contact him.

“We’ll make room for you,” Glick said.

Phebian Abdulai enrolled at Bryant & Stratton Business College to become a medical assistant. In the meantime, she got a job with Hospice Buffalo, working nights and then returning home to get her kids ready for school. She would get some sleep and then go to school and then back to work.

When she graduated in 2004, she went to work for Glick at Jericho Road, on the West Side. She continued her schooling, this time going to Trocaire College to become a registered nurse.

The family moved to Orchard Park. Breima got a job with a Heritage Center group home in Hamburg.

Abdulai enjoyed working at the clinic, which provides health care to many resettled refugees as well as other low-income residents. She felt that she was still helping her people, the way her mother had urged her to do.

One day, Glick sat down with Abdulai to discuss her future plans, whether they involved staying at Jericho Road. She shared with him her old dream.

“Well,” he recalled telling her, “if you lead, we’ll support you. We’ll go with you.”

Glick had been interested in doing medical missions abroad.

Returning to her roots

In 2009, Abdulai, joined by doctors from Jericho Road, returned to Sierra Leone for the first time since she fled with her children through the banana trees.

She cried and cried, as if at a funeral.

“Everything was gone. My loved ones were no more,” she recalled of the overwhelming emotions she felt.

Eleven years of civil war had taken their toll on Kono. Buildings lay in ruins, even though the war had ended in 2002. Poverty was pervasive. Even the most basic medical needs were not being met. Health care workers showed Abdulai and her fellow travelers the nearly empty medicine cabinets in the pharmacies at their clinics.

The need for medical care was even greater than she had thought. “They really needed help with medical care,” she remembered thinking.

With the backing of Jericho Road, she traveled back and forth between Western New York and West Africa, bringing doctors with her to hold mobile clinics throughout the region. Among the most pressing needs they fulfilled was providing hernia surgeries. Both children and adults were suffering from dangerous complications from untreated hernias.

They soon began laying the groundwork for a permanent health center in Koidu. It would be called the Adama Martha Community Health Center, named for Abdulai’s mother and grandmother, both of whom have died.

“This was like a dream come true,” she said.

Ebola disrupts clinic plans

As plans for the clinic were made, Abdulai spent several months at a time in Sierra Leone, then returned to Buffalo.

She was back in Kono in 2014 when construction finally began on the clinic. She worked with Jericho Road to hire local workers to do the work.

In the spring, Ebola surfaced.

“We didn’t know it was going to get this ugly,” she said.

Her friends and colleagues in Buffalo asked her to come home, but she refused.

“My mind said to run away from Ebola,” she said, “but I wouldn’t have peace within my spirit to leave the country.”

As Ebola spread, the country shut down. Schools were closed. People stopped playing soccer. And many people feared going to the doctor, worried they could be exposed to the virus.

Abdulai and Glick knew that the need for the clinic was more critical than ever. It was never meant to be an Ebola treatment center, and they didn’t want to change the mission. However, with the deadly virus sickening thousands in the country, the clinic had to be able to handle a patient suspected of having Ebola.

They agreed to halt all medical care and any mobile clinics and concentrate on building the clinic, as well as setting up protocol to keep all health care workers and patients safe.

That was hard for Abdulai.

Even though the clinic had not opened, people kept coming to her for help.

“I wake up with people at my doorstep, waiting for help,” she said.

In October, Glick flew to Sierra Leone to show his support and to work on the protocols. While there, they also met with other members of Western New York-based charities, and they started a donation program to raise money for families that are quarantined. When a family member comes down with Ebola, he or she is taken away to a treatment center. The rest of the family is quarantined and often has difficulty getting enough food.

Family stays safe here

Abdulai returned to Buffalo at Thanksgiving. It was a chance for her to decompress and regain her strength before going back to Sierra Leone later this month to open the clinic.

She was thrilled to spend Christmas with her family. She missed Christmas in 2013.

“They said: ‘This is not Christmas,’ ” she said.

She misses them terribly when she’s in Sierra Leone, but they support her.

“They understand it’s for a good cause,” she said.

Abdulai takes comfort in knowing her children are safe in the United States.

“That was my main reason for running from the war,” she said.

She knows she runs the risk of coming into contact with Ebola when the clinic opens, hopefully next month.

But Abdulai won’t give up.

“I know this is life-threatening,” she said. “The God that has given me this vision will protect me.”