Telee Brown counts out a stack of twenty dollar bills on the counter of at a Western Union on Staten Island, home to one of the largest Liberian communities in the U.S.
“I’m sending money to Liberia,” he tells the teller. “What’s the fee? $10.50?”
Brown has lived in Staten Island for about 15 years now, but many of his family and friends are still in Liberia, one of the countries hardest hit by Ebola. Nearly 2,500 people had died there from the disease by mid October, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There have been only three diagnosed cases of Ebola in the U.S. — none in New York. But while the outbreak has largely been limited to West Africa, local communities are feeling the effects of this disease in other ways.
For example, Brown recently started sending back about $300 a month — double what he used to — and he’s fundraising for the Staten Island Liberians Ebola Fund.
Brown says basic items have become much more expensive in Liberia and members of his family there are staying home from work. Which means they aren’t earning, and they need his support.
“My cousins who cannot go out in the street to sell water definitely are calling me on a daily basis, [saying,] ‘Oh uncle Telee, how am I going to make it? I don’t have food,’” he says.
But coming up with extra money each month for family members in Liberia, is making things tight for Brown and his family in New York.
“It makes me reduce the amount of milk that I used to drink,” he says. “If I maybe ate three times a day, I have to save on a meal and eat two times a day.”
Those kinds of cutbacks can have ripple effects in the local economy.
Brown has reduced his visits to an outdoor market that sells traditional West African food like hot sauces and cooked meats.
“Nobody got money to buy food here to eat,” says vendor Sonnie Selma, explaining that many regular customers are sending all their money back to family members. She says now she’s worried about paying rent.
But it’s not just the lack of money that’s keeping people away.
Solomon Reeves, a child care specialist who’s been fundraising to send money and medical supplies back to Liberia, says there’s also a lot of fear about who might have traveled to West Africa recently.
“Because of the Ebola, people don’t really come [to the market] the way they used to come here,” he says. “They’re afraid.”
Before he came to the market, Reeves said his wife told him to be careful; he noticed recently that a friend didn’t want to shake his hand; and there have been a couple of reports of Liberians being told to stay home from work.
The entire Liberian community here is suffering economically and socially because of this disease, even though the closest diagnosed case is well over a thousand miles away.