“I saw so many people die. So many of my neighbours and friends,” Salamatu – or Sallay as her family calls her – remembers sadly. When her father, a respected policeman, was infected with Ebola in 2014, Sallay tried to take care of him.
“She was all the time near him. She gave him food and tea,” her mother, Icha Korsu, says. “We thought he had hypertension and only learned about the Ebola disease after he died.”
In Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, the Ebola outbreak infected over 27,000 people and killed over 10’000. Sallay was one of the 18,000 children who lost one or both of their parents.
Yet, Sallay did not have much time to mourn her beloved father, because only two days after his burial, Sallay and her two older brothers and mother started to experience the symptoms of the disease.
The Ebola virus hit some of the world’s poorest countries and some of the most vulnerable communities, and had a devastating impact on children. About one in five of those infected was a child. Mortality rates were particularly high among children.
“Sallay is my little one, my youngest child. I was heartbroken when I saw her falling down with red eyes and a high fever. She was so weak,” recalls Isha.
In August 2014, the family was admitted to the Kenema hospital, one of the health facilities in Sierra Leone that UNICEF helped supply with medicines and other materials needed in response to the Ebola crisis.
Sallay was the last one of the family to recover from the disease. Isha remembers the phone call she received from the nurse taking care of her daughter. “She told me that Sallay was eating porridge again … I was so happy, but I could not say a word. I only cried.”
Today, the family believes they owe their survival to UNICEF.
“UNICEF saved us. That made us happy,” says the young girl, who tells how the family, now economically fragile without the support of the father, received some essential household items that helped them survive. “Because we were sick, the family could not provide for us. UNICEF gave us many things – cooking pots, spoons, mattresses, water containers, clothes … That was really important for us.”
Yet, the time after the recovery was also difficult for Sallay. She was stigmatized by her peers as they feared getting infected from her. “My school friends did not want me to touch them or even get close to them. That was hard for me.”
One month after she was released from hospital, her school was closed for a year.
“I like to study. I like mathematics and science … I really missed school. You know, the most important thing for children is to go to school,” Sallay points out.
The national school closure due to the outbreak was a grim time for the young girl, but there was one thing that helped to boost her morale: “I was able to follow the classes on the radio,” Sallay explains, and points to a small chair next to the window where she used to spend hours listening to the educational radio programme that UNICEF helped to develop. The programme allowed students to keep up with their school work until the crisis was over.
In 2015, the state declared the end of the outbreak and Sallay’s school reopened. The community outreach campaigns launched with the support of UNICEF helped to improve hygiene, limit infections and combat the stigmatization of Ebola survivors.
Today, Salamatu does not fear speaking about the disease. Despite her traumatic experience, she has a big smile and a great deal of energy to skip rope and make plans for the future. “I want to become a nurse … or a banker, so I can support my family.”