For Ebola victim, US trip followed years of effort

Published October 9, 2014 5:30AM (EDT)

DALLAS (AP) — Thomas Eric Duncan, the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the United States, grew up next to a leper colony in Liberia and fled years of war before later returning to his country to find it ravaged by the disease that ultimately took his life.

Duncan, 42, arrived in Dallas in late September, realizing a long-held ambition to join relatives. He came to attend the high-school graduation of his son, who was born in a refugee camp in Ivory Coast and was brought to the U.S. as a toddler when the boy's mother successfully applied for resettlement.

"His son had told his mother, 'I want to see my dad. Can we help my dad to come?' And they fixed his papers to come to this country," said Duncan's brother Wilfred Smallwood, whose son, Oliver Smallwood, is quarantined with the household that hosted Duncan before he was diagnosed.

The trip was the culmination of decades of effort, friends and family members said. But when Duncan arrived in Dallas, though he showed no symptoms, he had already been exposed to Ebola. His neighbors in Liberia believe Duncan become infected when he helped a pregnant neighbor who later died from it. It was unclear if he knew about her diagnosis before traveling.

Duncan's life reflected the hardships of many Liberians who fled or endured the country's 14 years of civil war.

He grew up in a village near the Yila Mission, an American Baptist mission hospital and leper colony, according to a lifelong friend, Thomas Kwenah. Duncan later moved to a middle-class area in Monrovia for high school, according to a friend from that time, Tonia Wordsworth.

Wordsworth, who now lives in Calverton, Maryland, called Duncan a "dutiful" young man who was "like a brother."

Duncan was 18 when warlord Charles Taylor invaded Liberia from Ivory Coast, initiating years of conflict. Duncan's half-sister, Mai Wureh, had arrived in the U.S. with her husband in 1989, shortly before Taylor's invasion, and helped her family apply for resettlement — but the application was denied.

"Mai had filed for us to leave the war zone, but after a long time, the U.S. rejected all of us," Smallwood said.

Duncan, Smallwood and other family members fled in the opposite direction from Taylor, to a refugee camp outside the Ivorian border city of Danane. It was there that Duncan met Louise Troh.

"We all lived in Ivory Coast in the refugee camp, and by 1994, they were boyfriend and girlfriend," Kwenah said.

When Troh's resettlement application was approved, she took along the couple's 3-year-old son, Karsiah, but Duncan's visa applications were denied. Along with relatives, Duncan migrated from Danane to Buduburam, a sprawling, city-like refugee camp in Ghana.

A friend who met him there, Wilmot Chayee, said the two spent hours playing basketball or watching professional soccer.

When the camp closed in 2013, Duncan returned to Liberia, to the same area where he'd attended high school — now a slum wracked by poverty and disease — and into a small room in a private home, Wureh said. He took a job with Safeway Cargo, FedEx's shipper in Liberia, as the general manager's chauffeur.

But a year later, he was summoned to the U.S.

Duncan had recently confided, Kwenah said, that he "wanted to marry that girl in Dallas."

Duncan arrived at Troh's apartment on Sept. 20 — less than a week after helping his sick neighbor. For the nine days before he was taken to a hospital in an ambulance, Duncan shared the apartment with several people.

"We thought that because he was in America, he was safe, that he would be the one Liberian to survive," Kwenah said.

Duncan's family visited him at the hospital and glimpsed him using a camera system, but said they had declined to do so again because it was too upsetting.

Karsiah Duncan was unable to visit Duncan at the hospital Tuesday evening, Troh said, and so never saw his father again.

By Emily Schmall

Emily Schmall is an editorial fellow in Salon's New York office.

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