Tag Archives: Liberia

Ebola From the Front Lines

Ebola from the front lines: AJWS’s Liberia consultant reflects on the crisis and AJWS’s work to stop it

Dayugar Johnson (“D.J.”), AJWS’s in-country consultant in Liberia

Dayugar Johnson (“D.J.”), AJWS’s in-country consultant in Liberia

Dayugar Johnson (“D.J.”), AJWS’s in-country consultant in Liberia, imposed a quarantine on his family soon after the Ebola epidemic struck their neighborhood in Monrovia last year. He was especially strict with his children.

“If you leave,” he warned them, “don’t return for 21 days!”

When they needed groceries, D.J. drove his wife to avoid taxis, which proved a dangerous virus transmission source. They only left the house dressed in long layers of clothing and armed with bottles of diluted chlorine to sanitize their hands. The kids couldn’t play with the neighbors, and hand-washing became ritualistic.

During the height of the epidemic, the road the Johnsons live on—normally teeming with traffic—was eerily quiet, except for the constant fleet of emergency vehicles headed to the nearby crematorium.

“On a daily basis,” D.J. told AJWS, “you heard the sirens going up and down carrying loads and loads of bodies. Death was everywhere. People died on the streets.”

At least 4,716 people, to be exact, have died of Ebola in Liberia since March 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There have been more than 26,000 cases in West Africa overall. Liberia’s last known victim of Ebola died on March 27. Barring the discovery of a new case, Liberian officials are prepared to declare the country Ebola-free on May 9, after conducting a 42-day countdown.

Ebola pro photo - Copy


AJWS on the ground

In two conference calls for AJWS supporters and interviews with AJWS, D.J. recently spoke about his work with AJWS grantees to stop the epidemic. He explained that 19 courageous organizations used AJWS funding to teach people in their communities how to implement the kinds of precautions that D.J. enforced on his family. Even as quarantine and travel bans restricted his work during the worst parts of the crisis, he continued to support grantees via phone and internet.

AJWS has worked in Liberia since 2003, and until Ebola hit, had provided more than $1.7 million in grants to advance human rights in the country.

When the Ebola crisis swelled last August, AJWS sent more than $763,000 in emergency aid to help its grantees lead public health campaigns; go door-to-door to educate communities about the virus; train religious leaders, women’s groups and media organizations to educate Liberians in their own languages; provide health care and psychosocial support to communities and work to stop stigma and discrimination against Ebola survivors; and collaborate with county health teams and task forces to ensure a coordinated response to the epidemic.

Ebola DEN-L organizing a community meeting to respond to questions on Ebola in Bong County

Grantee DEN-L organizing a community meeting to respond to questions on Ebola in Bong County












Overcoming the witchcraft myth

D.J. explained that Ebola spread rapidly in Liberia because many people didn’t take sufficient precautions. He says culture had a lot to do with that. “For Liberians, it’s difficult to greet you without shaking your hand,” D.J. said. “They will feel offended if you didn’t, especially elderly people.” The idea of quarantine is alien in this close-knit society.

Another deadly cause was mistrust and misinformation. The country’s civil war, which ended in 2003, left the population with an enduring mistrust of their government. For this reason, “A lot of people did not believe it [and] doubted it,” D.J. said of Ebola.

Many people thought news of the spreading disease was a cover-up for an impending invasion or civil war, a way for the government to embezzle money from the international community, or—because the devastation seemed so incomprehensible—witchcraft. Others saw the hazmat-clad international health workers as frightening foreign invaders.

As a result, many people eschewed health workers’ advice or took the sick to traditional healers, native doctors and spiritualists. And they didn’t heed instructions to stop the traditional practices of washing and dressing infected bodies before burial.

A trusted, grassroots response

In this climate of misinformation, mistrust and fear, D.J. says AJWS’s grantees were able to get messages through to people that outsiders could not. As trusted members of their communities, they went door-to-door and over the radio waves to convince people to take the life-saving precautions necessary to stop Ebola in its tracks.

Ebola DEN-L leading a community radio show  to raise awareness around Ebola prevention - Copy

Grantee DEN-L leading a community radio show to raise awareness around Ebola prevention












The Bassa Women Development Association (BAWODA)—which before the epidemic worked to increase women’s participation in local human rights movements—ran Ebola protection trainings for women in communities throughout Grand Bassa County, a hard-hit area. The main takeaways: Ebola is not a government ploy, and it can be prevented by hand-washing, steering clear of dead bodies and refraining from eating wild animal meat.

BAWODA also deployed religious leaders as a powerful vehicle for educating large numbers of people.

“Their congregations believed them,” D.J. said. “They trusted them. This did a lot in preventing a lot of the infections.”

Not just hygiene

AJWS grantees also helped with the medical response to Ebola and the ramifications of the health system collapse it caused. Before the outbreak, Liberia had just 50 doctors and one health worker for every 3,400 people, D.J. said. Ebola killed about 180 of those workers.

“Thousands more people have died of other things, like childbirth or malaria,” D.J. continued. “I saw pregnant women, children and elderly people left to die in wheelbarrows in front of clinics or hospitals.”

Imani House International, an organization that offers clinics and housing for women and girls throughout the country, appealed to AJWS when the crisis began overburdening hospitals. Imani renovated a clinic to provide Ebola-related triage and routine health care to people in desperate need. When two Imani staff members caught the virus and tragically died, the surviving staff persevered with their work even as they mourned.

“The Ebola virus came so close to home, and they were still able to have the courage to open the clinic and serve communities,” Mr. Johnson marveled. “[Others would] just close the clinic, pack up and go.”

Ebola Imani House staff--clinic near Monrovia that renovated part of its center to support Ebola quarantine and triage - Copy

Staff from AJWS grantee Imani House, a clinic near Monrovia that renovated part of its center to support Ebola quarantine and triage


In Gbarnga, the capital of hard-hit Bong County, AJWS began funding Development Education Network-Liberia (DEN-L), which took on the task of locating sick people who were hiding throughout the county to evade quarantine, to prevent them from infecting others.

“The fact that such prevention measures were coming from within the community,” Mr. Johnson said, “rather than from the government or Westerners, made the people more trusting that these difficult things were necessary.”

Den-L also established teams of 15-20 youth to patrol communities at night, because ineffective policing during the height of the crisis led to a spate of burglaries and other crimes.

Looking ahead

All of AJWS’s grantees are still doing Ebola work, now focusing on message reinforcement to combat complacency and bring the number of cases down to zero, as well as providing psychosocial support to those who were left behind. Getting orphans back to school and destigmatizing survivors prove particularly challenging.

“It completely devastated these communities and traumatized people,” Mr. Johnson said. AJWS is currently formalizing a new grant to an organization that will train groups in counseling.
As the crisis slows, AJWS’s grantees in Liberia are working to fill in the gaps left by an exhausted health system and give relief to communities affected by food insecurity issues that Ebola caused.

“Most farms were abandoned, either because of migration or death due to the outbreak,” he said. “A major challenge will be getting the systems—governance, health, and accountability—working again. Civil society will have a major stake.”

D.J. says the past year has reminded him why he wanted to work for AJWS in the first place.

“This crisis has kind of underscored the important work that AJWS is doing in Liberia and the importance of AJWS’s approach of having community organizations take the lead,” he said. “A lot of [other] donor organizations set criteria that a lot of grantees could not meet. When [those organizations] leave, they only leave signboards behind to show they were in those communities. With AJWS, the impact lasts after they leave the community.”


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How Are AJWS Grantees Affected by Climate Change?

This week, on the heels of the historic People’s Climate March, world leaders will convene for the 2014 United Nations Climate Summit in New York City to take action against the dangerous consequences of climate change. While the world’s developed countries have been the largest producers of carbon dioxide emissions, the world’s poorest countries are unjustly paying the highest price. Communities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are experiencing droughts, sea-level rises, stronger storms, warmer temperatures, unpredictable rains, the depletion of habitable land, and severe weather patterns that are leaving people hungry, disrupting their livelihoods and forcing them to abandon their homes. At the Climate Summit, world leaders must create a vision that will incorporate a human rights framework to protect the world’s poorest communities.

Here’s how some of our grantees and their communities have been affected by climate change and how they’re working to build a healthier planet:

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Ebola Crisis in Liberia: How AJWS Grantees Are Responding

Staff and volunteers from AJWS grantee Grassroots Agency for Social Services (GRASS) in Liberia

Staff and volunteers from AJWS grantee Grassroots Agency for Social Services (GRASS) in Liberia

The largest outbreak of Ebola in recorded history has infected at least 5,357 people in West Africa and killed at least 2,630 as of September 16, 2014 (World Health Organization). Of the 5 West African countries in which Ebola has spread, nearly half of those infected have been in Liberia. All major hospitals and clinics have closed in Liberia because health workers do not feel safe going to work, fearing there isn’t enough protective equipment for them. Additionally, Liberians have described rampant mistrust that keeps sick people and their families from seeking help. There is also widespread misinformation about how the disease spreads, which prevents communities from protecting themselves.

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The Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement

Originally published on the blog of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I’ve been reflecting a great deal on the power and possibility of social change. The climactic moment on August 28, 1963 came when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his quintessential “I Have a Dream” speech, which crystalized decades of tireless activism and ignited decades more. But a lesser-known speech delivered by Rabbi Yoachim Prinz—the President of the American Jewish Congress, who took the podium immediately before King—was stirring in a different way.

Prinz understood the plight of African Americans and other disenfranchised groups in the context of his own experience as the rabbi of a Jewish community in Berlin during Hitler’s regime. He devoted much of his life in the United States to the civil rights movement. And, in his speech at the March on Washington, he articulated a message that has always resonated with me: “Bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

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Dvar Tzedek: Parashat Lech Lecha 5773

One of the things I find most inspiring about studying Torah is that the biblical characters are human. They may be our valorized, mythical ancestors, but they also consistently make mistakes, leaving a record of paradigmatic human foibles from which we can learn. There is one biblical failure, however, that I have always struggled to understand as a useful example. It occurs for the first time in this week’s parashah, as Avram goes to Egypt to avoid the famine in Canaan:

As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.” Read More »

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Interview With Ruth Messinger: AJWS’s Liberia Study Tour

Left to Right: AJWS President Ruth Messinger, Liberian activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee and American Jewish feminist writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin

An intergenerational group of American Jews recently traveled with AJWS to Liberia to learn how Liberian women are effecting social change. Melia Plotkin, an AJWS intern, caught up with AJWS President Ruth Messinger to learn about the trip:

Melia: This was your first trip to Liberia. What was it like to travel to a country where AJWS’s work is well-established?

Ruth: Much of our work in Liberia supports human rights for women, adolescent girls and people with disabilities—issues I care about deeply. Some of the Liberian women we met were leaders in the peace and reconciliation efforts to end Liberia’s civil war. I was enormously inspired to see that these women have remained leaders in their communities and are teaching young people about the importance of human rights and education. One woman was asked how an AJWS grantee had benefited her. She answered: “I can now write down my phone number and give it to someone else.” It was a staggeringly simple comment that reminded me why our work matters.

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What Charles Taylor’s Sentence Means for Liberia’s Future

Charles Taylor, Former President of Liberia

Last week, former President Charles Taylor of Liberia was sentenced by an international tribunal to 50 years in prison for his role in instigating murder, mutilation, rape, sexual slavery and the use of child soldiers in Sierra Leone.

This ruling against a former head of state is a major win for international justice since the Nuremberg trials in 1946. It exemplifies the principle that no one, be they powerful politicians or warlords, is above the law. The sentencing did come with a big price tag: $50 million and nine years since the initial indictment. The people of Sierra Leone, and all peoples, deserve a quicker turnaround in trying cases of perpetrators of violence.

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Silent Rebels: Women in Liberia Access Justice

When there is a problem to solve, the women of Liberia know what to do: they put on their t-shirts that say “WIPNET,” (Women in Peacebuilding Network—under the umbrella of West Africa Network for Women in Peacebuilding Liberia, an AJWS grantee of nine years) and they gather. “They call us silent rebels,” says Cecilia T. M. Danuweli of the network. “As soon as [people in the streets] see the women in the t-shirts, they know there is a problem.” Read More »

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Six Women to Add to Foreign Policy Magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2011

Foreign Policy Magazine recently released its list of the Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2011. We were disappointed—though not so surprised—by the paucity of women on this list. So, we’ve added six extraordinary women who deserve recognition.

Leymah Gbowee, Liberia. You’ve probably heard a lot about Leymah Gbowee, in the news and on our blog. She won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize and is the founder of AJWS’s grantee Women Peace and Security Network- Africa (WIPSEN), which is why we were so surprised that she doesn’t appear on Foreign Policy’s list. (Leymah was, however, named as one of Forbes’ 10 Most Interesting Women of 2011.) Together with activists from the Liberian women’s movement, Leymah mobilized women from all walks of life and across religious and ethnic lines to demand peace and put an end to Liberia’s devastating 14-year civil war. She also fought to ensure that women could participate in political processes and rebuild the country.

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Liberia’s Election Results – A Win for Women

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia

President of Liberia and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was just re-elected for a second term of office. But her victory, described as “a boon for women,” was fraught with controversy.

Sirleaf’s opponent, Winston Tubman of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party, boycotted the election run-off, citing alleged irregularities and systematic fraud in the first round of voting in October. At a demonstration the day before the November 8th runoff, police opened fire on CDC supporters, killing at least two Liberians in an incident that Tubman says was an assassination attempt. Read More »

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