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At a glance: Sierra Leone

In Sierra Leone, supporting Ebola survivors on the road to recovery

By Harriet Mason

For children affected by the Ebola virus, either as survivors or after losing family members or caregivers, UNICEF is working with partner organizations to provide psychosocial support and to help them realize a brighter future.

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone, 26 May 2015 – When child survivors like 10-year-old Hawa* emerge from the plastic-walled Ebola treatment centres, there are relief, smiles and often a joyous mix of dancing and singing.

© UNICEF Sierra Leone/2015/Mason
Social worker Chrisnel John in a group counselling session with children whose lives have been affected by the Ebola virus.

But people sometimes forget that even after the doctors and nurses have issued a clean bill of health, Ebola survivors still need support, with many having lost parents and caregivers, dealing with residual health issues and managing the trauma that will persist long after the virus has left.

“When I was discharged from an Ebola treatment centre about two months ago, I was feeling very unhappy, because I had lost my mother and five other relatives to Ebola,” says Hawa.

Hawa is not the only one in her community in distress. Twenty-four other children in the same compound of 80 households are either Ebola survivors or have been orphaned after losing parents or caregivers to the disease.

Just in this compound, the Ebola virus has taken the lives of 34 people. Many residents say the trauma of losing loved ones and the stigma associated with the disease are difficult to bear.

Partnerships in support of children

Chrisnel John is a social worker for UNICEF partner Defence for Children International (DCI), and she provides weekly support to Hawa and her neighbours. “When I started coming here, the situation of the children was very difficult,” she says. “There were some survivors who were traumatized, had other health issues, and some orphans who were really depressed, felt solitary and withdrew from their peers and even elder family members.”

“Psychosocial support is critical for children in emergencies, and there’s need for them to readily access these social and emotional services,” says Roeland Monasch, former UNICEF Representative to Sierra Leone. “We have therefore scaled up programming to support the psychosocial needs of children who have been affected by the Ebola outbreak and have provided support for over 10,000 children and their families through partners.”

With funding from the UK Department for International Development (DFID), UNICEF is working with 14 partners across Sierra Leone’s 14 districts to provide psychological support services to affected children.

Moving on

In most cases, children affected by Ebola are timid when it comes to sharing their stories. But Chrisnel uses her years of experience as a social worker to help children feel comfortable.

“I made friends with the children, played games, organized arts activities and held group and individual counselling sessions to help them let out their stress,” she says. 

In all of this, she didn’t forget to remind them of how to stay safe from Ebola.

“I tell them the key Ebola preventive measures including frequent washing of hands with soap and clean water.”

According to Chrisnel, the range of psychosocial services provided for the children is helping them to start moving on with their lives.

© UNICEF Sierra Leone/2015/Mason
“I am thankful to God that I survived this terrible disease,” says Hawa, 10.

“The diverse support we provide has helped revive the lives of these children,” she says. “Happy faces have replaced the gloomy ones they had few months ago. Now they feel comfortable around their peers, interact more and are gradually replacing the worries of Ebola with hope for a better future.”

Achieving dreams

The current Ebola outbreak is the worst the world has seen and has had tremendous effects on the lives of children in Sierra Leone, one of the hardest-hit countries in West Africa.

“DCI is doing well for us,” says Hawa, “Aunty Chris has been coming to us every week, she plays with us and encourages us to avoid crying. I thought I was never going to stop crying for my mother and relatives."

She says she feels happier than before she started coming to the support sessions.

“I am thankful to God that I survived this terrible disease,” says Hawa. “I pray every day for Ebola to finish, and I know God will answer my prayers. I want to start moving freely and doing what I used to do before the disease came,” she says.

At her age, Hawa has started thinking of how she could make life better for her family.

“I want to be a bank manager so I can earn money to take care of my family, build them a big house and take care of myself,” she says with a smile. “I am excited to go back to school to learn and finish my schooling, because I need to be educated to achieve my dreams.”


*Name changed



UNICEF Photography: The end of Ebola begins at home

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