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Relatives afraid to take in Ebola orphans
02:34 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Relatives won't take in children made orphans by Ebola

A local pastor wants to see this change; he practices what he preaches

UNICEF: Thousands of children in West Africa have lost one or both parents to Ebola

Ebola survivors, considered immune to the disease, are being trained to treat children

Monrovia, Liberia CNN  — 

Two children orphaned by Ebola play in the empty corner of a Liberian orphanage. Their parents died last month, and none of the extended family is willing to claim them.

They’re too afraid.

For every Ebola grave, there is roughly one child who lost a parent in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The disease has robbed at least 4,555 people of their lives.

It has robbed some 4,000 children of one or both parents, the U.N. child agency, UNICEF, estimates. The agency fears the number will skyrocket with the rapid increase in Ebola cases.

Changing attitudes

The orphans are not sick, and pastor John Ghartey is tired of seeing them not being taken in. He is trying to change attitudes in his congregation at Christ Kingdom Harvest Church in New Georgia, Liberia.

It was slow going at first. As Ebola killed parents, the fear of contact with orphaned children spread, even after they persistently showed no symptoms.

“Ebola is separating families because when your family has come down with the virus, nobody want to touch. Nobody want to interact,” Ghartey said.

The disease has indeed turned the social fabric on its head. Extended family usually takes orphans in, but fear has broken the chain, said Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF’s regional director.

Sometimes, the fear is justified.

“Ebola is turning a basic human reaction like comforting a sick child into a potential death sentence,” Fontaine said.

UNICEF is working on safely treating children who are sick. About 2,500 survivors will get lessons on providing care to children quarantined in treatment centers. Ebola survivors are considered immune to the disease.

Inside the world’s worst Ebola outbreak

Compassion works

For his part, Ghartey has rallied from the pulpit and set an example, even by just holding orphaned children’s hands, a rare gesture in these fearful times.

It may have caught on.

Some children who were orphaned have found more compassionate relatives.

A woman in Ghartey’s choir died, leaving her eldest daughter to care for four brothers and sisters in addition to her own 1-year-old daughter. She has taken on the task.

The preacher remembers the scene when the woman died. She was lying dead in a room, while the rest of the family lay on the porch.

Ghartey invited them into his home.

“They sit in my living room with my family,” he said. “They are like a family to us now.”

As Ebola has thinned out his flock, the pastor has given them spiritual comfort to fight their fear.

“If Christ is your convener, sickness and diseases cannot destroy you in the name of Jesus!”

In the face of the deadly virus, he preaches, with his whole body and full voice, the hope of an immortal soul.

CNN’s Nima Elbagir reported and wrote from Monrovia; Ben Brumfield wrote from Atlanta. Faith Karimi contributed to this report.