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What would you say, if a four-year-old orphan walked up to you, Stretched out her little arms, and said, “Do You Want Me?” That is a tough question. What would be your response, how would you answer? This did happen and is still happening.
I am publishing this article in its entirety. I want you to understand the full picture of this situation. For me, it is the cry of a child’s heart. It is the cry of every man, woman, boy, and girl. The cry is the need to be loved, accepted, wanted, and valued. These basic human needs apply in relationships. Even those of friendship, dating, and marriage.
This story was first published in “The New York Times.” It is written by, Jeffrey Gettleman. This article was published on December 13, 2014. Here is the story of “Sweetie Sweetie.”
An Ebola Orphan’s Plea in Africa: ‘Do You Want Me?’
PORT LOKO, Sierra Leone — Sweetie Sweetie had no choice.
Her father had just died of Ebola. So had her sister. Her mother was vomiting blood and fading fast.
When the ambulance arrived and her mother climbed in, Sweetie Sweetie climbed in, too. Ebola had been like a curse on her entire house, and even though the young girl looked fine, with no symptoms, nobody in her village, even relatives, wanted to take her. With nowhere else to go, she followed her mother all the way into the red zone of an Ebola clinic and spent more than two weeks in a biohazard area where the only other healthy people were wearing moon suits.
As her mother grew sicker, Sweetie Sweetie urged her to take her pills. She tried to feed her. She washed her mother’s soiled clothes — not especially well, but nurses said they were moved by the effort. After all, they think Sweetie Sweetie is only 4. Healthcare workers did not even know her real name, which is why they called her Sweetie Sweetie.
After her mother died, the little girl stood outside the clinic gates, looking around with enormous brown eyes. There was no one to pick her up. She was put on the back of a motorbike and taken to a group home, whose bare, dim hallways she now wanders alone. Social workers are trying to find someone to adopt her, and Sweetie Sweetie seems to know she is up for grabs.
On a recent day she asked a visitor: “Do you want me?”
Wretched for children
Ebola has been wretched for children. More than 3,500 have been infected and at least 1,200 have died, U.N. officials estimate. Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea, the most-afflicted countries, have shut down schools in an attempt to check the virus, and legions of young people are now being drafted into hard labor by their impoverished parents.
Little boys who should be sitting in a classroom are breaking rocks by the side of the road; little girls struggle under enormous loads of bananas on their heads. This was always true to some degree, but social workers say there are more children, especially teenagers, on the streets than ever before, which could lead to an increase in crime and adolescent pregnancies. When the schools do reopen, there will probably be many vacant seats.
But the worst off, by far, are the Ebola orphans.
The U.N. Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, says that across the region, there may be 10,000 of them. Many are stigmatized and shunned by their own communities.
“If there’s an earthquake or a war, and you lose a mother or a father, an aunt will take care of you,” said Roeland Monasch, head of UNICEF’s office in Sierra Leone. “But this is different. These children aren’t being taken in by extended family. This isn’t like the AIDS orphans.”
People in hard-hit Ebola areas see children as mini time bombs. They do not wash their hands very often, they constantly touch people, and they break all the Ebola rules. Something as simple as changing a diaper becomes a serious risk because the virus is spread through bodily fluids.
It is a miracle that Sweetie Sweetie even survived. She slept in a bed next to her sick mother in a crowded isolation unit with people dying all around her from a deadly, contagious pathogen. She was never given a protective suit — health workers said that was not the protocol, and there were none even close to her size.
She made her bed every morning and tried to keep her mother’s spirits up — her unflagging attention was why the health workers started calling her Sweetie Sweetie. The area she comes from, a village near Port Loko, an old river town east of the capital, Freetown, has been ravaged by Ebola. But so far, Sweetie Sweetie has not shown any symptoms.
Social workers have been trying to piece together her story, but her mother entered the clinic in bad shape and was delirious, making it difficult to ascertain all the facts. Sweetie-Sweetie does not talk much, either. But from what was gleaned from her and snatches of conversation with her fading mother, the social workers believe she is about 4 years old, her father was a medicine man and her real name might be Mbalu Kamara, although the lead social worker handling her case was quick to add that all that remains “unconfirmed.”
Life in a group home
No relatives seem to be looking for her. The only family member social workers have been able to find was a man they described as an uncle. They said he was an alcoholic and not fit to raise her.
For now, she continues to live in a group home with nine other children who have either lost their parents or have simply been lost in the maze of isolation centers and Ebola clinics.
The person most interested in adopting Sweetie Sweetie is a young healthcare worker who treated her mother and said the mother’s dying wish was for him to look after the little girl.
His name is Usman Koroma, and when he was tracked down at a rundown teachers’ college in Port Loko and asked if he knew a girl known as Sweetie Sweetie, the first thing he said was: “She’s mine.”
He explained, in what seemed an eager but heartfelt way, how he had fed her extra portions of rice, oranges, soup, and cassava porridge in the clinic, to boost her immunity.
“I loved the child,” he said.
Musa Conteh, a government social services officer who has been helping with Sweetie Sweetie’s case, was suspicious at first.
“When this girl was discharged,” Conteh said, “there were a lot of guys standing around, saying they wanted to take her, because look at her, she’s nice.”
When asked what he meant by that, Conteh dropped his voice close to a whisper.
“This is a fluid time,” he said. “You never know.” He said that the authorities had to be on guard for any signs of strangers adopting children for the purposes of trafficking.
But the more he listened to the healthcare worker, the more Conteh was reassured. “We will keep investigating,” Conteh said. “But this man is educated. He can give her a new life.”
When asked when he might make a decision about Sweetie Sweetie, Conteh said he did not know. There were dozens of cases like this in his district, he said. Each day, the numbers grow.
I first read this story four months ago. I took the pictures from the articles and kept them in my picture file. Each time I go to my pictures, It is my reminder to pray for this child. I ask myself this question, “What do I have to complain about?” I am so blessed in this life. If I had been asked the question by Sweetie Sweetie, “Do You Want Me?” I would have said, “YES.”
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