A Sierra Leonean woman has revealed the treatment she received at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport just after the government banned any entry for her country’s citizens due to ebola.

In a lengthy blog post published on Go Woman Magazine, Dr. Fatmata Sesay-Kebbay, attached to the UN, recounted her nasty 40 hour ordeal in the hands of airport authorities.

Here’s the full post.

I am Dr. Fatmata Sesay-Kebbay and I was recruited as a consultant by the UNDP as one of two consultants to jointly conduct
a UNDP-UNEP United Nations Development Programme – United Nations Environment Programme Poverty – Environment Initiative training course “Poverty-Environment Mainstreaming and Gender-Responsive Economic Planning” 25-29th August in Naivasha, Kenya with 32 participants from six African countries.

I left Sierra Leone, on 15th of August 2014 and flew to London, where I went through customs and immigration with no difficulty and stayed until August 24 when I left for Nairobi through Dubai. My itinerary was London/Dubai by the Emirates and Dubai/Nairobi by Kenya Airways. At no point did any of these two airlines, in particular Kenya Airways, inform me about travel restrictions on Sierra Leoneans entering Kenya. I arrived at 6:20 am in Nairobi (August 25) only to be asked to go to a corner of the arrivals hall. The reason being that I
had not yet been out of Sierra Leone for 21 days.

Before proceeding to Nairobi, I had obtained written confirmation from the UN, (UNDP/UNEP PEI Africa Programme) located in Nairobi that the Immigration authorities would allow me entry; “We have inquired with both the UN Travel Unit as well as the UN Clinic here in Nairobi and they claim that there should be no problems for you to enter Kenya as long as you are not traveling directly from Sierra Leone and have your visa in order”. I also had a UN medical clearance/screening form completed by me and signed by the UN Medical clinic in Sierra Leone after being checked for ebola.

My ordeal commenced once I arrived at Immigration in Nairobi. I was handed over to the port health team and confined to a corner of the Arrivals hall. I was not screened like other passengers coming from “Ebola affected/suspected countries”, nor asked about my health status. I was later informed about a government directive that had apparently been issued a few days earlier (around 20th of August) which prohibits the entrance of Sierra Leoneans into Kenya unless they had spent more than 21 days outside of Sierra Leone. The authorities did not accept the UN medical clearance form as a reason to grant entry to Kenya. At that point I was able to inform the UN staff who organized the
training: Moa Westman and David Smith.

I understand that several telephone calls were made by the UN Joint Medical Service (JMS) Nairobi to the Ministry of Health from where the directive was issued, after my call. The UN medical clinic and David Smith, Manager-Africa of the UNDP-UNEP PEI programme were instrumental in trying to secure my “release” and they kept in touch with me regularly to provide updates on progress and also check on my welfare at the airport. The port health team, especially the first team (Limo and Catherine) who were on duty in the morning when I arrived were very helpful and treated me respectfully and assured me that the issue was going to be resolved. Limo and Catherine handed over to Margaret at about 9 am who was later joined by Pamela. My treatment changed with Margaret and Pamela. They had limited interactions with me and provided no information on what was happening until about 1pm when a Mr. Mohamed Duba, head of the Port Health Team asked Edward, a member of the team, to ensure that I was given food and advised that it was likely I would be sent back to London.

In fact I was given no food – not even water for ten hours. I finally got food at 4:20 pm and was told about 5pm, by Mr. Duba, that the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Health, the highest decision maker at the professional level, has asked that I be sent back to London. He then requested Kenya Airways, to arrange my return. Deciding which flight took another several hours. The KQ staff at the transfer desk, Anthony, later informed me that that I may go on a 7pm flight.

He later sent a colleague of his at about 6 pm to inform me that the 7pm flight option will not work and he is trying to get me on a 10pm flight. At about 9pm, I went up to the Customer Service desk as I was getting worried that KQ staff had still not confirmed my return flight and asked that I speak to the Airport Manager. Mr. Peter Cherokeh, Airport Operations Manager turned up and after I explained my plight to him, he ordered me (in a loud voice drawing the attention of everyone in the area) to confine myself to a corner of the airport and warned me not to come near staff at the customer service desk.

I was completely shocked and taken aback even though I obeyed. The Operations Manager continued shouting in a loud voice to KQ officers on the phone pacing up and down where I was seated. He also proceeded to talk to the port health team, speaking in a loud voice in what seemed to be a scolding for my continuous presence at the airport. His actions, language and hostility clearly showed me being labelled an Ebola patient who should be taken out of the area as soon as possible. At no time was I subjected to temperature tests or questioned about my health
status.

A sympathetic KQ staff, Anthony, bought me a one litre bottle of water at about 9:30pm, (the second bottle of water since 4:20 pm) and offered me a second flight option for 10 pm but told me that the flight was booked only to Dubai with no confirmation of a connection to London. I could not accept that offer for fear of similar or worse treatment in Dubai, plus with no visa for the Emirates, checking my luggage only to Dubai will create difficulties for me to recover them in Dubai.

Upon Anthony’s departure at about 10:30 pm he handed the case over to the KQ Duty Service Manager, Samuel who insisted that I go to Dubai as they had no other flight options to offer me. At this point Samuel threatened that immigration will be forced to confine/lock me up in a room since they had no other flight option for me. At the same time they refused to get me on the KQ direct flight to London that was departing at about midnight with the excuse that there was no manager on site to approve the cost of the ticket. Samuel later gave instructions that I be provided with a second meal since 4:20 pm and the second meal was provided at about 12 midnight. He left assuring me that he will do his best to get my onward connection but never came back to see me that night and not until I left the following day.

Throughout the first day, I was frustrated and felt undeserved shame because of the confinement to a corner for all to see and be shunned as a carrier of a dreaded disease. Yet no attempt had been made to check my temperature or even interview me on my earlier whereabouts. I remain in total shock as to why I was treated this way and not given any option of being tested. I also wondered if indeed their suspicion was that I might have been infected by the Ebola virus (as I later learnt from other empathetic airport workers that that was the information given about me – just because I come from Sierra Leone) why is it that they could not offer me any medical service at all.

I was kept at the airport for almost 40 hours before I left at 23:50pm on Tuesday the 26th of August, I was not allowed to buy my own food and finally given some food and water after 10 hours and confined to a chair all night. Without any confirmation of a continuing flight, I was left to face a night at the airport on the 25th of August!!! I spent the night sitting on a chair, without any sleeping facilities in the car parking building that serves as a temporary arrivals hall at the airport. As a woman and a human being who had committed no crime, I believe this was unfair and violates basic principles of human rights.

My experience on the second day, 26th of August at the airport arrivals hall was different from the first day but I am not quite sure as to which one was less traumatic. After spending the night at the arrivals hall, no official-immigration, port health team or Kenya Airways staff- spoke to me all day on Tuesday. Due to the non-responsiveness of Kenya Airways and the behavior of some of the authorities, David Smith requested UNDP to issue a new ticket for a direct flight to London on British Airways. He was shocked in the morning when he learnt that I had not flown on the 12 midnight KQ direct flight to London.

I was not provided any service by the authorities in Kenya on the second day. I remained confined to a corner and a chair at the arrivals hall feeling lonely and ostracised. My only visit was by Mr. Abdul Kargbo, the Sierra Leone Consul-General in Kenya who brought me food. It was indeed a good feeling to see Mr. Kargbo who actually asked me “what would you like to eat”. All of this was going on while at another corner of the airport arrivals hall, not far from the desk I was sitting at, some staff, in their full Ebola gear and masks were being trained on how to quarantine an Ebola suspected case with the trainees casting suspicious eyes at me from time to time.

Mr. Kargbo came back to the airport to supervise my check-in after UNDP had issued the BA ticket. He pleaded with the airport authority that I be released at 5pm so that I can at least take a shower before the flight departs but this was rejected. I was to be released in time for my check-in only and that was to be at 9 pm. At about 8:20 pm, I was escorted by the port health officials on a bus, together with Mr. Kargbo, from the arrivals hall to the main terminal building and they stood guard to ensure that I checked in before they left. They treated me like a criminal!

I am thankful, however, for responsiveness of UNDP and UNEP, senior UN officials from Sierra Leone who are working in New York, Sierra Leone’s Deputy Ambassador in Ethiopia, Sierra Leoneans living in Kenya and Mr. Abdul Kargbo. Mr. Kargbo’s support was invaluable.
I recognize the rights and responsibilities of the Government of Kenya to protect the lives of its citizens, but in this case I also expect to be treated in a humane way, and for my dignity to be respected. It is unfortunate that the misinformation about the Ebola, evident by the way I was treated, combined with the insensitivity of the bureaucracy heightened xenophobia and could lead to stigmatization of nationals from Ebola-hit countries. I was disappointed in the way Kenya Airways handled my return. Above all, the biggest concern is how Kenya, and other countries instituting similar measures would respect the human rights of all passengers and also be prepared to provide medical service where needed. Assuming their suspicion of me being infected was correct, they would have left me for 40 hours without medical care.

In my opinion, the authorities at the airport were implementing a government directive that was wrong for four reasons:
1. The directive had not been communicated to international organizations and not even the embassy/consulate of the affected countries who would have advised citizens of the country to avoid travelling to Kenya
2. The directive provided no exception, say on the basis of a test, for people who had not been informed about it.
3. The inhumane treatment-no food and water for 10 hours, no place to sleep, no immediate return flight provided etc- in the cause of implementing the directive.
4. Targeting nationals of Ebola-hit countries rather than travellers from these countries is a very dangerous precedent that could incite the most negative dimensions of xenophobia in countries that are supposed to be promoting African unity.

The world should not sit and allow citizens of a set of countries to be the object of unjustified discrimination at this time. The AU/ECOWAS/UN must protest formally and take appropriate action. I hope this case gives sufficient evidence for that. I am pleased to inform you that I safely returned to London, on 27th of August. I came down with coughing and bodily pains, I guess from the cold night at the airport. I was completely exhausted. I would like to thank all those who read my story and reacted either directly or indirectly to alleviate my plight. I am grateful, but sadly, I am sure many other Sierra Leoneans are experiencing discrimination and stigmatization now and for
time to come.