Members of Chicago’s West African diaspora say they are struggling under the pressure of supporting large extended families in Ebola-stricken countries, where the public health crisis has taken a serious economic toll. Some have turned to neighbors, government assistance programs and faith organizations for help -- not just to send back to their motherland, but to sustain their families in the U.S. during this period.
“You know, to take care of five persons in America, at the same time to take care of more than 25 persons (in Africa), it’s not easy,” said David Young, “and on a low income, it’s terrible.”
Young, a Liberian who came to the U.S. two years ago and was recently joined by his wife and three children, worries that his family might perish -- of starvation -- in Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood on the South Side. The family receives free housing from the Chatham Fields Evangelical Lutheran Church, where Young is Music Director. Young says his take-home pay, about $1000 a month, is already low for a family that size. But lately, they’ve had to make do with less, as he’s been wiring about $600 montly back to his family in Liberia.
“Because there’s no work now in Liberia -- everything is shut down economically,” Young explained, “So, they tell me that they are not working.”
The World Bank and other international aid groups confirm those reports. People in Ebola-stricken countries, afraid of catching the often-fatal virus, are staying home to avoid human-to-human interaction. This has left many households without income.
“I am telling you that almost everyday they make a call,” Young said about his family in Liberia. “They have to call and tell us no food, no this one, no this, no that. They are not working. There’s no jobs.”
The amount that Young feels obligated to wire abroad has left him desperate for help feeding his family here. Trying to get help, Young said he has attempted twice to qualify for food stamps in Illinois. He was denied because he’s lived in the U.S. fewer than five years. Because of the nature of his work visa in the U.S., an R-1 temporary visa for religious workers, Young also faces restrictions on what type of additional work he may seek to augment his income.
Still, Young feels compelled to continue to reach into his household’s meager resources to scrounge whatever they can for his network in Liberia. In a front room of his house, a large blue barrel sits, half-full with items like hand sanitizer, soap, toothpaste, disinfectants, shampoo, and rice. All are items one can find in Liberia, but Young says his sons there tell him that pantry staples and basic household cleaning products have shot up in price since the outbreak began.
“If you ask for a bottle of Clorox right now, it’s very expensive,” said Young.
Just across the street from Young’s house, at the Chatham Fields Evangelical Lutheran Church, Pastor Kenety Gee helps lead a congregation with many Liberians. He said the financial toll of supporting family back home has hit them all.
“It’s really hard to look at the pictures, look at the stories, and ignore your family members,” Gee said. “It’s really, really hard, so you got to stretch yourself.”
Gee said he’s no exception: one of his sisters in Liberia has a successful wholesale business, and never required Gee’s support. But with Liberia’s economy on hold, things have changed.
“I send them $300 every week. That’s $1200 a month,” said Gee. “But that’s the kind of strain that is put on us here in the U.S.”
The World Bank hasn’t yet analyzed recent remittances to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Wiring services Western Union and Moneygram weren’t able to share data. But people from all three communities share similar stories: that they’re constantly transferring money, and that many have shifted away from shipping goods.
Artemus Gaye used to collect goods monthly to ship to Liberia. But his last 40-foot long container was sent in March. Since then, the business has dried up.
“Who will you send it to now everyone has been quarantined, people are not moving around,” said Gaye. “The markets are very empty.”
Today, Gaye’s collecting protective medical gear and hospital supplies, which he hopes to ship in November. This isn’t the usual stuff for this time of year. Normally, Gaye would be shipping Christmas presents. Still, he’s optimistic that the market will be back to normal by the holiday
Gaye’s encouraged by recent reports that Ebola is leveling off in Liberia.
“We might be having a good Christmas season,” said Gaye. “You know, it’ll be reflective, but at least people will be out there to do what they do best - interact with each other.”
Many hope their family members in Africa will also be able to return, safely, to work. That could help ease finances for the diaspora in Chicago to celebrate the holidays, too.