Sam Johnson

With JSI since 2016

Technical advisor for the Ebola Transmission Prevention and Survivor Services project.

You were born in Liberia, grew up in the U.S., and now you’re living in Sierra Leone. What first brought you to Freetown?

I’d actually quit a job in Philadelphia because I knew I wanted to work abroad full time. I left on faith that I’d find something and Medair, a Swiss NGO, called and asked me to be a community programs manager during the Ebola outbreak. I actually thought, “Ebola…I’m not sure that’s what I really had in mind…” but I ended up taking the position.

What was it like to be dropped into a crisis like Ebola?

The first thing I did with Medair was a training in Madrid focused on Ebola outbreak preparedness. We practiced full simulations wearing PPE (personal protective equipment) and various scenarios that could occur during the outbreak.

Prior to landing in Sierra Leone, I’d seen maybe two dead bodies at funerals in my entire life. During the outbreak, I saw several people pass away whether in quarantine within their compound or at our Ebola Treatment Center (ETC). It was so hard. People would take a loved one to an ETC knowing they might never see him or her again. For those who passed away, their families would have 15 minutes to bury them. They had no closure.

The country was turned upside down and because of the nature of the virus, cultural norms ceased. To save yourself, you had to go against human nature. You couldn’t touch anyone. You had to constantly wash your hands and use hand sanitizer. That was how you protected yourself.

What was your job?

I managed a 90-person team that was responsible for surveillance, delivering quarantine support kits (that contained fresh food items and a few non-food items), and providing psychological first aid. We’d get a list from the District Ebola Response Center of addresses that were quarantined or linked to suspected contact and we’d go verify the listing for that particular address. My teams were sent out daily to monitor the signs and symptoms of those quarantined for 21 days. It was a tough job—made all the more difficult because there were travel bans and curfews.

The Ebola virus disease (EVD) outbreak made me value human life even more. Being in communities and seeing the simplicity—yet physically demanding—day-to-day house work has made me more grateful. We sang and danced for everyone who left an ETC alive.

What was the effect on Sierra Leone?

More than 4,000 people died—including more than 200 health care workers. People across the country were afraid to come to clinics so other health problems were exacerbated.

Today, there are about 3,800 people in Sierra Leone who survived Ebola [you can watch a video about a survivor here].

You joined JSI in November 2016.

Yes, I came back to Sierra Leone, after a year of working on the Syria crisis, to work on the Survivor Services initiative which is implemented through JSI’s Advancing Partners & Communities project.

People have said that Ebola has had the same psychological effect on individuals as the 12 years of civil war—abrupt deaths and families having no chance for closure. Our project is focused on survivors’ psychological and (as-of-yet unknown) medical problems. We’re working with the government to strengthen the current health care system to be more prepared for future outbreaks and mitigate EVD transmission, make sure survivors have access to health care to address their ongoing health issues, and reintegrate survivors into their communities to ultimately reduce stigma.

What are you seeing as the long-term effects of Ebola?

The government is looking at ways to strengthen the health system. Today, in Sierra Leone, the male life expectancy is less than 50 years. Most of the problems are things that can be fixed, like access to clean water and sanitation, diarrhea, and tuberculosis. JSI and USAID are helping with that.

Frankly, we hoped that Ebola would make the world realize how quickly epidemics can spread. There will be another viral outbreak at some point—if not Ebola, something else. We’re a global community. Everything can travel anywhere.

You were born in Liberia but grew up in the United States. Tell us about your trajectory.

I was born in Monrovia, Liberia. When I was three, my parents and I were visiting family in the States when the Liberia civil war broke out, so we stayed. I ended up growing up there. Unfortunately, several of my siblings were stuck in the conflict. After much work, they were relocated to neighboring countries for safety. It took 15 years to get all my siblings to the United States.

When did you return to Liberia?

I first returned in 2006, right after the war ended, with mother and a few of my sisters. Going back made my mom so sad; she had lived there when the country was developing and coming up. Returning to the devastation of the war was heartbreaking.

How did you end up in Sierra Leone?

In college—at Virginia Tech—I began volunteering in various places. In 2006, I went to Liberia and from there to Kenya. I was working in the Kibera slums and that brought home that much of the world lives in poverty. So I changed my major to nutrition and food science and technology and ended up getting an MPH in nutrition and community development. I worked full time in graduate school for WIC (a U.S. food voucher program for women, infants, and children) as a nutritionist and saved my vacation so I could consult and volunteer abroad. By the end of graduate school, I had worked in Kenya, Cambodia, South Africa, the Bahamas, and Haiti, which I visited more than four times after the earthquake.

I was also in the Middle East for 11 months with World Vision, working with refugees and IDPs. The refugees had arrived with nothing but what they could carry.

The refugees from Syria and Iraq are unique in that they are not that much different from a middle-income family in the U.S. or Europe. They are educated, skilled, and had their own businesses, houses, and cars. However, they had to walk with their families for hundreds of miles to safety in another country. I heard countless stories of family members leaving the refugee camp and taking the illegal boats into Europe just for a chance of survival and a hope for a better life.

Through all that, I realized that I am the happiest working where the population looks like me. I was always a minority in the U.S. In Africa, where most aid workers are white, it means a lot for the people we serve to see a woman who looks like them—they’ve told me that it inspires and encourages them. I have been given a lot of opportunities and have taken every single one of them to get to where I am today and do this type of work.

What is your life like now?

In February of this year, I married a lovely, smart man from Sierra Leone. He’s terrific!

My work has led me to reconsider the “buying” culture. I don’t need a bunch of new shirts or whatever. I’d rather spend my money supporting kids not just getting stuff.

Frankly, I’m finding beauty in the simplicity of life.

A Project to Remember