News / Europe

In France, Worried Africans Raise Funds and Call Home

Ebola virus viewed through an electron microscope. The World Health Organization on Friday, Aug. 8, 2014 declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
Ebola virus viewed through an electron microscope. The World Health Organization on Friday, Aug. 8, 2014 declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
Lisa Bryant

With the World Health Organization now calling the Ebola outbreak an international emergency and new cases moving across borders, the virus is no longer seen as restricted to a small part of the African continent.

That message is resonating strongly in France, a major hub for West African air traffic and home to a sizeable African diaspora.

For reggae singer and political dissident Alpha Wess, who fled the dictatorship in his native Guinea a decade ago, once-distant threats are beginning to feel imminent as the Ebola virus begins ravaging his homeland.

"My brothers, sisters and parents live in the capital, Conakry, [but I] can't go home because [I'm] a political refugee," he said.

Wess isn't the only worried expatriate. At places like Le Fouta Djalon, a Guinean restaurant in central Paris, he and fellow countrymen trade greetings — and news about the virus.

But the restaurant's owner, Oumou Barry, who was visiting family in the northern Guinean town of Mamou, says Ebola won't stop her visits home.

"I told everyone to keep their hands and their homes clean — and to keep their kids off the streets," she said.

So far, Ebola cases haven't cropped up in France, but the virus has now spread to Nigeria and possibly other countries as well, while Spain and the United States have repatriated infected citizens.

Still, Dr. Francois Bricaire, a specialist in infectious diseases at the Pitie-Salpetriere hospital in Paris, says the risk of a major outbreak in France remains low.

"There's always a chance of a few cases, because Ebola's incubation period can last up to three weeks," he said. "But even if a case is diagnosed, measures will be taken immediately to stop transmission."

France is taking no chances. Air France flights from West Africa now screen passengers before departure and French airport personnel are advised watch out for suspect cases.

A number of French hospitals have special isolation rooms for sick patients.  

But many Africans here are anxious about the spread of the virus back home — including 65-year-old Senegalese Amara Sheaur, whose country, so far, Ebola has spared.

"I call home frequently to check up on family [in Dakar]," he said, adding that even though he considers Ebola very dangerous, he still plans to visit them in December.

In the suburb of Montreuil, known as "little Bamako" because of its large Malian population, community leader Lassana Niakate says many fellow Malians fear another hardship for their conflict-scarred country.

"Mali borders Guinea and ... Malians and Guineans cross that frontier every day," he said, explaining that the risk of Ebola crossing that border is the source of his worry.

For its part, the Guinean diaspora has organized awareness and fund raising campaigns to send medical supplies to health workers back home.

Wess, the reggae singer, has even given benefit concerts.  

"The Guinean community is very close in France," he said. "A crisis like Ebola binds it even closer."

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