Homesick: Guinean Student Battles Ebola Epidemic

When Bintou Cisse thinks about her home country, she has to quarantine her fears. “I have some really close friends who after high school went to different countries. Many of them are doctors. I don’t even want to think about what has happened to them because that will stop me from thinking clearly,” she said.

Cisse has family in Guinea, one of the three countries that has been severely affected by the Ebola epidemic. She and other West African nationals in the Capital Region have turned their concerns into action.

“You can not stop yourself from being affected by it. I’m here but half of me is still there,” she voiced. Cisse has slowly adjusted between the mindset of being back in Africa and the reality of living in America, “I’m here. I’m there. I’m here. I’m there.”

Nearly 5,000 cases of Ebola have been reported of the recent outbreak, with 52 percent of the cases resulting in death. According to the World Health Organization, the mortality rate for the virus is up from 25 in previous outbreaks to 90 percent in current ones.

Taking Action

Cisse co-founded the Capital District Concerned Citizens Against Ebola organization alongside her brother and sister, representing Guinea, Ousmane and Diaka Cisse, in early August of this year with other African immigrants representing Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Liberia.

“We started talking about it before [Ebola] was big. We were talking about it always before really sitting down and organizing this together,” she said.

The organization began with less than 20 members but, now Cisse states, “It’s well beyond that.”

On Sept. 13, at the Westminster Presbyterian Church at 85 Chestnut St. in Albany, the organization raised $3,000 for Doctors Without Borders (MSF), a French-based humanitarian organization.

Cisse said, “It was quite a success. We’d like to do it again.”

16 MSF staffers have contracted Ebola in the 2014 outbreak and with a death count totaling nine workers.

“What everybody should be doing is helping those whose job it is to help others,” she said.

Cisse explained how she balances school and volunteer work. “I don’t think it’s that hard because when you put your heart into something, you can not complain because somehow you have to do it. Somehow you love to do it. In this case, I have to,” she said.

“We all are busy in school, working two jobs so we all try to get together whenever we can,” stated Cisse about organization.

“I can not just sit and wait for something to happen,” said Cisse.

A Sister on the Front Lines

Cisse draws on her cultural bonds to drive her desire to help those in need.

“In Africa, when your neighbor is in danger or needs attention, you have to help [them] before it’s too late because you never know who’s going to be next,” she said.

The Guinea national stated that young adults between the ages of 20 to 35 are the biggest supporters in the fight against Ebola. “We’re more active. It’s our world. My grandparents don’t care. It’s our responsibility to let them go and let our children grow safely,” said Cisse.

Cisse and other younger group members use social media to spread awareness. She said, “Anytime we see something new, we link it and hope it spreads faster than Ebola.”

She regularly communicates with family members stranded in Guinea. Her sister, Fatoumata Cisse currently works as a doctor for a private clinic treating patients affected by Ebola in Guinea. Fatoumata studied medicine in the disease-torn nation and is working towards becoming a doctor. “She keeps me updated about everything that’s going on,” she said.

When thinking of her sister, Cisse said, “My first thought is ‘Fatoumata, can you stay home for a little while?’” She communicates with her sister weekly through Skype. She added, “I’m her sister, I can’t help but care. I’m going to tell her to stay home because at least she’s safe there.”

Cisse continued, “She’s fighting against Ebola. I know from what she’s saying that’s it’s not only from the media. I have somebody in. There are real people fighting against Ebola.”

Fatoumata was asked to travel to Sierra Leone earlier this month for a humanitarian mission but could not due to border closing between Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Senegal.

“When doctors don’t have enough sufficient equipment to protect themselves, do you think they’re not going to help each other? They don’t even think that they’re killing themselves,” said Cisse.

From what her sister tells her, Cisse referred to life in Guinea as “living in prison” with recent border closings. “We cannot go outside. We are not free to go anywhere we want. It’s just not fair. It shouldn’t be like that. We can prevent everyone from closing their borders is for Ebola to stop spreading,” she said.

She also fears the conditions of her parents back home, “They both feel the need to be present in their children’s lives. I of course would rather they stay here with me, but I am not alone,” said Cisse.

Americans Get Cured

Cisse said that in Guinea, people do not believe the media. Her mother told her about a group of eight health care providers who travelled to Womme, a village in southeastern Guinea to educate locals on the virus. The villagers killed all eight of the doctors with clubs and machetes.

“They were caring [for the villagers]. My sister is like that. What if she was among those people?”, she said.

Ebola has spread beyond West Africa to the United States in recent weeks. After Thomas Eric Duncan, died receiving treatment for Ebola in Dallas, Nina Pham, a nurse at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital caught the virus. She tested positive on Oct. 13. The nurse wore a gown, mask, a shield and gloves when treating the Liberian national.

Another nurse at the hospital, Amber Vinson, was diagnosed with the illness on Oct. 15 after flying from Cleveland to Dallas-Fort Worth, violating CDC guidelines.

“Do you know how scary that is? If you have a family provider die from Ebola? What will happen to the children? Who’s going to take care of them?,” asked Cisse. Around 3,700 children in Africa have lost a parent or have been orphaned due to the virus.

Cisse believes the treatment West Africans receive is disgraceful: “You know those two Americans who got affected by Ebola and came over here? They got cured. That older guy from Liberia who came here did not know he had Ebola. He came here, he had it and he died. That says a lot.”

“That’s telling me that our lives are not worth it. I cannot change my skin color. I am African. I have an accent. I have the physical appearance. We have been fighting Ebola for a long time even before those two Americans got affected by Ebola,” said Cisse.

Vinson and Pham are not the only two Americans to have contracted, and as of now, survived Ebola. After contracting Ebola from a mission in Liberia, missionaries Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol were taken to Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital on Oct. 6. Writebol and Brantly left Emory Hospital without signs of Ebola on Aug. 21 after using an experimental drug, ZMapp.

Spreading The Message

26-year-old Cisse immigrated to the United States in 2011 for a better education than the one she could have received in Guinea. She is currently completing the now-defunct Broadcast Communications program at Hudson Valley in her third semester and now wishes to become a broadcast journalist.

“If people trust you, they will trust what you’re saying. I will try to be a journalist and a journalist is someone who has all of the facts right,” she said.

She hopes to eventually enter the Guinea media. “If I’m the best journalist I can be over here, I can bring that credibility to Guinea,” said Cisse.

Cisse still hears familiar noises from Guinea despite being 4,260 miles away from the West African nation. “Bintou’s body is here but even now I still wake up and think that I’m in Guinea.  I still hear my birds chirping in the morning always singing so everytime I wake up, I hear them and then once I see snow, it’s over,” joked Cisse.

In the coming months, Cisse wishes to propose fundraising by her organization on campus to the student senate. She has participated in the senate since the beginning of the current semester. The activist said, “I’ll have to put something down and present it to the senate to get a lot of people’s attention.”

She envisions her fight against Ebola to grow stronger from on-campus activism. “I’m going to try to talk to people on campus and see if anyone else is in this fight. Maybe we can join forces. If we work together, it will be bigger than ever imagined,” she said.

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