“You’re from Liberia, so you have a disease.”
When Shoana Solomon’s nine-year-old daughter came home from school and told her what her US classmates were saying, Solomon knew there was trouble ahead.
The photographer and TV presenter had recently moved her daughter to America from liberia’s capital Monrovia only a month ago.
But, despite coming from an Ebola-affected area she was not subjected to any scrutiny upon her arrival on American soil.
However as fear of Ebola mounts, Liberians in the US are increasingly finding themselves stigmatised because of the paranoia gripping the world.
So, Solomon decided to launch a campaign to address the social hostility by photographing her self with the sign “I am Liberian not a virus” and posting it to social media with the hashtags #EbolaStigma and #IamALiberianNotAVirus.
“The day after that happened to my daughter, I made a Facebook post,” Solomon told reporters.
“I said, oh my goodness, my daughter’s being stigmatised. I said: Get ready.”
To add fuel to the fire, the campaigner received a distressed phon ecall from her sister who also lives in the US.
“Her daughter was in school and sneezed a couple of times. They took her temperature and placed her alone in a room, called my sister and said, given the situation,” Solomon explained to reporters.
The school asked for Solomon’s niece to be temporarily removed from the classroom, despite the fact that the girl had never been to Liberia, nor had contact with anyone returning from Liberia for over two years.
This stigmatisation is not confined to just Solomon’s family, all over the US Liberians are experiencing prejudice because of coming from a country so deeply affected by the current Ebola epidemic.
In Washington their have been report of Liberians instructed to temporarily leave work.
The death of Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian and the only person to have died from Ebola on US soil, has helped foster an American suspicion of Liberians.
Nowhere is this felt more in the US than Staten Island in New York. A neighbourhood there is known to local as ‘Little Liberia’ and is home to the largest population of Liberians outside of Africa.
Late last week the community in Staten Island held a meeting at the local town hall to denounce the stigma surrounding their community.
While Solomon says she understands the concerns of the public, there needs to be some sensitivity.
“Don’t get me wrong: I’m afraid,” she said.
“Ebola is a serious thing. I don’t want to minimise that. But there has to be some sensitivity. We have been through so much as a country: first our 14-year civil war, and now Ebola – the stigmatisation is just too much.”
A video has also been released by Solomon and her friends in which she addresses the camera about the hurt felt by her daughter when accused of being a vector of Ebola.
“We didn’t bring this virus on ourselves,” she says, holding up a placard reading: “I am a Liberian, not a virus”.
So far the response to the campaign has been ‘awesome’, Solomon says, adding that the hashtag has been picked up by Twitter and since been adopted by Liberians around the world who have taken pictures holding up similar signs.