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Liberian Expatriates In Atlanta Join Together To Fight Ebola

Mina Bestman moved to Georgia from Liberia almost 20 years ago. She owns Mina's Cuisine, a West African restaurant that caters to homesick Liberians. Dustin Chambers for NPR hide caption

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Dustin Chambers for NPR

Every time the phone rings, Leo Mulbah is struck with fear.

He says many Liberians living in America feel the same way right now.

"We get calls on an hourly basis, about friends, neighbors and family," says Mulbah, the president of the Liberian Association of Metro Atlanta. "We dread these phone calls saying that someone else has died."

Atlanta is a hub for the Liberian-American community. About a quarter of the 80,000 Liberian expatriates in the U.S. live there.

Many of them want to help fight the Ebola epidemic in their homeland.

"We all know family, friends, neighbors that are falling victim to this scourge," he says. "We are sending money and protective gear as much as we can. Irrespective of the diaspora, we have come together as a nation to ensure our country doesn't fall victim to this virus."

In 2011, Liberians living abroad sent $378 million back to family members in their homeland. That's nearly a third of the country's gross domestic product, according to the World Bank. Liberia is the second-highest recipient of remittances after Tajikistan, when measured as a percentage of GDP.

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During the Ebola epidemic, this money is more important than ever, Mulbah says. His organization has raised enough funds to buy protective gear and medical supplies. But it hasn't gotten enough money yet to ship the boxes. The group is planning fundraisers and town hall meetings in the next few weeks to raise more money and awareness about the epidemic.

Many Liberians immigrated to Georgia in the 1990s to seek refuge from the civil war there. Others have come during the recent time of peace to join their families and earn money in a more stable economy.

Liberia was founded by freed American slaves, many from Tennessee and Georgia. "There is a very strong link between the Southeast and the Republic of Liberia," says Cynthia Lynn Blandford, the Liberian consul general in Atlanta.

But Mulbah thinks Liberians come to Georgia for a simpler reason: the weather.

"Most people who come here are young people," he says. "They aren't thinking about the history of the freed slaves. But when we come from Africa, many Liberians find Georgia is a very suitable climate with the heat and humidity."

Fabunde Mamey, a sophomore at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., agrees.

"It's hot and humid, and sometimes when I am driving with the trees and the grass, I am reminded of Liberia," he says. "I feel like I am back home."

Lawrenceville and Clarkston, two suburbs where Liberians tend to congregate, have diverse immigrant populations and are appealing to young families.

"You can own a home and have your kids in good schools," says Dede D'Almeida, 32, a student and event planner whose parents moved from Liberia before she was born. "You see a lot of prosperous and upwardly mobile African-American families in the suburbs, and that attracts Liberians."

Blandford, the consul general, spends a lot of her time trying to strengthen the ties between Georgia and Liberia, with good results.

The future Joseph N. Boakai Liberian Community and Cultural Center, named for Liberia's vice president, is supported by the Coca-Cola Foundation, the Carter Center and Home Depot, all Atlanta-based. In June, Atlanta played host to the Liberian Music Awards.

Blandford is also working with more than 20 colleges and universities to establish the University Consortium for Liberia. The goal is to increase scholarship opportunities and student visas for Liberian students hoping to go to school in Georgia.

There's a long history of Liberians coming to Georgia to study. Indeed, the grandson of Liberia's president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is a student at Morehouse University.

But as much as they embrace Georgia, many Liberians long for home. Mina Bestman moved to Georgia from Liberia almost 20 years ago. She owns Mina's Cuisine, a West African restaurant that caters to homesick Liberians.

"I opened the restaurant so we can gather and talk about back home," she says. "There's Chinese places and Jamaican places, and I wanted us to have our place, with our food and our community."

After 15 years of civil war, Bestman thought Liberia was getting back on its feet, and she felt hopeful for her country. Now, with the Ebola outbreak, she isn't so sure. Most airlines have stopped flights to the region. And the U.S. government has offered possible visa extensions to Liberians visiting or studying in the U.S.

"If I could, I would pack up and go home tomorrow," Bestman says. "But here, I turn on my lights, I turn on my water, and I know I am safe. Once I can do that in Liberia, I will go home."