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Women Who Survived Ebola Find a Space to Rebuild Their Lives

An elderly woman surrounded by children
A grandmother takes care of her four remaining grandchildren after losing two to Ebola in Bailu, Sierre Leone. Nana Kofi Acquah for the Open Society Foundations

Touching became forbidden; the scent of chlorine permeated the air. Whether directly or indirectly, Ebola, with its pervasive sense of abjection, affected every Sierra Leonean. 

The concept of human dignity was central to how development partners, government, and the world responded to this emergency, which devastated the lives of many on a daily basis, as Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea weathered the worst health epidemic ever to hit West Africa. 

It is often in the midst of desperate situations that we redefine our place in the world and give birth to the innovative solutions that make us whole again. This was precisely the case with the Survivor Dream Project (SDP). SDP came to be at a time when the outbreak and its responses were oscillating between devastation and progress. Its ambition was to produce impactful, community-based change, especially in the lives of women and girls who had survived a disease that disproportionately affected them. 

For the past year at the Survivor Dream Project, we’ve made use of holistic psychosocial, educational, and entrepreneurial spaces to support the reintegration of Ebola survivors and build the capacity of the women in our program. The nucleus of our work has been about using healing as a sustainable approach to rebuilding communities torn apart by Ebola.

The idea that one has to continuously work on the heart and mind to deal with trauma is central to our community-based support model, in which women and girls are empowered through practical skill-building. This is how we believe that communities can become and remain resilient—through productivity and self-sufficiency.  

Over the past 14 months, we’ve provided all 20 women in our program the chance to reunite in safe spaces on a biweekly basis, and organized 24 community-based healing and narrative therapy sessions. These sessions have been led by nutritionists, farmers, medical professionals, and even guest journalists from the BBC, some of whom covered the women’s stories in a program titled Women Who Survived Ebola. Still others held a dialogue event that was streamed through the BBC website. These opportunities provided the women at SDP a chance to tell their stories and to narrate their visions for the future.

The social workers at SDP never envisioned that their roles would include personally advocating for the women in the program. They have been called on to mediate family conflicts at the community level and sometimes in the workplace. Each time, they have had to recreate spaces for dialogue, education, reconciliation, and healing.

Over the past year, we’ve cried and laughed with these survivors, and celebrated their successes, like the student nurse who completed her nursing degree, and the senior nurse who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Service by the president of Sierra Leone. We’ve also been present during the difficult times—the survivors of SDP have struggled with homelessness, depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder. 

SDP’s community-based interventions are rooted in the belief that each woman who enters the program should leave knowing that she has the capacity to realize her dreams. So far, we’ve achieved this by supporting five girls as they returned to school and thrived in their education. We’ve held workshops providing basic business skills and opportunities to tap into seed funding. And we’ve invested in each woman by helping her develop a business plan during her training. A photography exhibition, Through Her Eyes, was curated entirely by the women at SDP; the proceeds from the entry fees were then used to fund seed grants for each of their business ideas, ensuring that each woman remained central to her own progress.

A year later, SDP is still expanding, with dreams to open our program to 50 more underprivileged women survivors of Ebola. This next iteration will introduce a mental health assessment to track the efficacy of our community-based interventions and the overall well-being of each woman. Today, SDP has a more nuanced understanding of the barriers and the efforts required to drive investment in the psychosocial welfare of vulnerable groups of people in Sierra Leone. 

The Survivor Dream Project is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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