Children from Africa with no connection to the Ebola virus have been shunned at schools across the country because of something that may be far more contagious: bullying.
In New York City, two Senegalese brothers — only 11 and 13 — were beaten so badly on the playground that they were taken to a hospital emergency room. Their bullies chanted: “Ebola! Get away from here!”
At a high school soccer game in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, a 16-year-old who had moved from Guinea in West Africa three years ago was taunted with chants of “Ebola!” by players on the opposing team. Ibrahim Toumkara was thrown out of the game after he charged at one of the bullies.
In Staten Island, a 6-year-old who used to be proud to call himself Liberian now hesitates because of the teasing. His mother, Oretha Bestman-Yates, who had visited family in Africa last summer, was forced to go on unpaid leave at her hospital job, according to the New York Post.
And in Texas, where Thomas Duncan died and two healthcare workers contracted the Ebola virus, children of African families who were born in this country have been questioned by school authorities.
“A neighbor of mine said her daughter was called to the principal’s office to ask when she was last home,” said Carolyn Woahloe, 33 of Fort Worth. “She was born here, but has an African accent.”
The 13-year-old’s family was from Ghana, where there have been no reported cases. “We joke and laugh about it because she educated the principal that Ebola is not in every African country,” she told NBC News.
“You have to educate people,” said Woahloe, who is president of the Dallas-Fort Worth Liberian Nurses Association.
“The stigma is there,” she said. “Kids go to school and because they have African parents, a lot of their classmates make fun of them, their accents and how they dress.”
Woahloe's 10-year-old was born in the United States and attends a school with “lots of diversity,” she said. “He hasn’t really felt any discrimination, but he says, ‘I feel really bad for the African children.’ I say, ‘What do you think you are?’”
So far, only four people have been diagnosed in the United States with Ebola, a disease that has killed nearly 5,000 in the Western African countries of Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria since the outbreak earlier this year, according to the World Health Organization.
The WHO says Ebola has been contained in Senegal, from which Ousame Drame, the father of the boys who were beaten Oct. 24 in New York City, had recently immigrated.
Charles Cooper, who is president of the African Advocacy Council in New York, said he was “shocked” to hear of the beatings and called for the Bronx school to take action.
The sixth-grader was punched and kicked the concrete first and when he screamed for help, his brother ran across the playground to help and was also attacked, according to Cooper.
“We have been hearing lots of stories and I am glad this family came forward to ask for help,” Cooper said. “This is affecting the African economy in New York City. They’ve lost a lot of business because their usual customers don’t want to go to them.”
"Kids going to school don’t have to be disrespected just because they are African immigrants.”
The boys’ father said his sons had been bullied for several weeks before the incident.
“Eventually, a staff member realized what had happened and grabbed them,” Cooper told NBC News. “The injuries were so severe they were bleeding with knocks on their heads and on their arms and legs. They were kicking and punching them and they were screaming.”
New York City’s Department of Education had this response to the incident Monday: “…we are investigating and we take this matter very seriously. DOE school safety staff are on site today to mediate this incident and ensure the safety and support of these students, school staff and their families.”
Other predominantly African communities say they have not seen the kind of bullying incidents that occurred in New York City and elsewhere. Samuel Sampson, president of the Liberation Nurses Association of Minnesota, said his group has launched an awareness campaign to preempt any hate crimes.
“Folks are coming in every day from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, but we don’t have to treat them like second-class citizens,” said Sampson. “And kids going to school don’t have to be disrespected just because they are African immigrants.”
Sampson said what happened in New York and elsewhere is “pretty sad.”
“I am shocked it’s even happening.”