The Ethiopian community in the Washington, D.C.-area is mourning the loss of a woman who died from coronavirus shortly after giving birth, without seeing her newborn.
Wegene Debele of Takoma Park, Maryland, was eight months pregnant when she began experiencing symptoms including fever, shortness of breath and loss of sense of smell. On March 25 she was hospitalized, and her son was born one month early via emergency cesarean section. On April 21 she died due to complications from the virus. Her son is healthy and does not have the disease.
On Friday at the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex in Virginia, mourners wore masks and stood at a safe distance from one another. Her husband, Yilma Asfaw, collapsed on the casket, crying out in Amharic. “You didn't see the boy you were looking for. You left your four children, and what would I do for them?” Despite his distress, his friends and family were unable to comfort him due to the distancing restrictions.
Her 17-year-old daughter, Mihret Yilma, said the loss is impossible to process. “I didn’t just lose one person. I lost three. I lost my mother, my sister and my friend. We were very close. She left without saying goodbye,” she told VOA, speaking a mix of Amharic and English. “She taught me the meaning of strength and faith. We are safe because of her prayer night and day.”
The daughter has been thrust into the role of mother, mixing milk formula to feed the baby and taking care of the newborn for three weeks. She said she takes solace in her new responsibility.
“The newborn baby reminds me of my mother,” she said. “I feel like I am finding my mother through my siblings. From now on, they are all I’ve got. Mom used to say when I have my own children that I wouldn’t need a babysitter and that she would raise my children.”
Yilma, 50, and Wegene, 43, won the Diversity Visa Lottery to come to the United States 10 years ago, bringing their daughter Mihret and son Naol Yilma, now 10. They had their third child, another son, Asher Yilma, after arriving in the U.S. The father is a school bus driver for Montgomery County, Maryland.
The Washington, D.C.-area is home to the largest population of people of Ethiopian descent in the U.S., with an estimated 100,000 living in the region.
“This family is going to need us in the future. They're going to need our support and our assistance, like so many families in our community,” Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart told local television station WUSA9.
Etsegenet Bekele is a neighbor and had known Wegene since she came to the U.S. She lived on the third floor and Wegene on the eighth. “This is so painful for a new mother. I have no words. It is so painful,” she said. “She was a good person for everyone, but she would die for her children more than anything. She is a soldier for her children.”
She said to mourn in such circumstances is painful, as people are keeping distance and can’t console each other. “You can’t get over it even after crying and everything is done from a distance. In our culture to be buried like this is deeply painful.”
Yilma said he still can’t accept the loss of the woman he has loved since they were both children.
“We have been together for 25 years,” he said. “She was my childhood friend; she was my childhood partner. She was my adviser, my lead, I don’t even know what to say. She loved her children. She was the kind of person who welcomed people with open arms. My sorrow is deep and bitter,” he told VOA.