By Kieran Guilbert
MONTSERRADO, Liberia, Jan 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Twelve-year-old Meama rarely drags her gaze away from the ground as she recalls living alone and relying on food from neighbours to survive after her mother died of Ebola in the world's worst known outbreak of the deadly virus.
Sitting outside her new home in West Point, the largest slum in Liberia's capital Monrovia, the hint of a smile flickers across Meama's face as her foster mother embraces her tightly.
"I went to visit my sister and saw this poor girl, homeless and alone, crying and crying," says Kulah Borbor, who had seven children before taking on Meama.
"I took her in because she looked so sad, wandering around without anyone to care for her."
Pupils laugh as they rush to school through the slum's narrow streets, but Meama's story is a stark reminder of the hardship faced by the thousands of children left orphaned by the two-year epidemic that slammed three countries in West Africa.
World Health Organisation (WHO) figures show Ebola killed more than 11,300 people - including about 3,500 children - since 2013, almost all in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
The epidemic was declared officially over on Thursday when Liberia was said to be Ebola-free for a third time, with no cases of the deadly virus in 42 days. Guinea was declared Ebola-free last month and Sierra Leone in November.
But although the epidemic may be over, thousands of people now face the challenge of having to rebuild their lives, with the authorities and charities working to help young victims.
About 8,000 children in Liberia lost one or both parents to the haemorrhagic virus, government data shows, leaving them vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and violence, with some forced to work in bogus orphanages or shunned due to fears of Ebola.
Borbor admits to being scared shortly after her adopted daughter moved in.
"She started feeling unwell and coughing, and I thought she might have Ebola - man, was I afraid!"
FORCED TO WORK
But stigma and fear are fading in the West African nation and the government is working with partners to ensure those orphaned are cared for by relatives or foster families.
While many unscrupulous, abusive orphanages popped up during the epidemic, a drive to close such institutions is underway.
"Our priority for orphans is always family care - regulated and well-run orphanages are a last resort," said Patricia Togba from the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection.
In a leafy, secluded village in Montserrado county, a far cry from West Point's cramped jumble of brightly coloured shacks, 50-year-old Varmah Massaquoa is struggling to care for her four grandchildren after Ebola killed their mother.
The young siblings sit in silence as Massaquoa remembers the day burial workers came to take the body away, and how the children, hysterical and sobbing, had to be restrained to stop them from climbing into the truck next to their mother's corpse.
"I feel nothing but trauma, the children cry most of the night and I cannot sleep ... but at least they have me - otherwise who would look after them?" Massaquoa asks as tears stream down the faces of her two granddaughters.
While West Africans traditionally keep orphans within the extended family, the fallout of Liberia's 14-year civil war saw more than 100 orphanages open after the conflict ended in 2003.
Most were substandard, or abusive and run by owners who forced children to work, according to the charity Save the Children, which helped the government establish a 2013 policy to assess and monitor orphanages and close any exploiting children.
"Regulation in Liberia is weak across the board, so even an orphanage opened by a well-meaning individual could quickly become unhygienic, abusive and lacking trained staff or a clear system," said Save the Children country director Edward Abbey.
The Ebola outbreak halted this policy, during which time many new orphanages sprouted up, but a renewed crackdown last year led to the closure of several institutions, some of which were using children to raise pigs and mould bricks for sale.
"We even had communities come forward to tell us that people had opened orphanages which seemed suspicious... everyone knows the importance of being cared for by a family," Togba said.
FREE AT LAST
At the height of the epidemic, which hit Liberia the hardest with some 4,800 deaths, the country of 4.3 million people was initially overwhelmed by the number of children orphaned, according to Togba.
Three transit centres housed those who did not have family members available to care for them while efforts were made to track down relatives and approach potential foster parents.
"The centres were overflowing at first, and I would think to myself 'how will we place all these children?'," Togba said.
But today, from rural, far-flung villages to bustling slums in Monrovia, almost all of the Ebola orphans identified by the government are living with extended families or foster parents.
While some orphans endure lingering stigma, called "Ebola children" and mocked or rejected by their peers, most have slipped happily into new families, communities and schools.
Frantically packing his school bag in his aunt's house in a small village in Montserrado, 60 km (40 miles) north east of the capital, 16-year-old Ernest dreams of becoming a doctor, like many other children orphaned by Ebola.
"I was caring for my mother who had Ebola and was terrified when she vomited in my lap. I feared I would get it... but now I'm working hard at school and thinking of the future," he said.
There are about 120 social workers across Liberia - compared to just 12 before the outbreak - who monitor the wellbeing of Ebola orphans and the care provided by their adoptive families.
The epidemic saw a spike in sexual violence towards girls and violence against children, experts say, and left orphans particularly vulnerable to abuse, said Sheldon Yett, country director for the United Nations children's agency (UNICEF).
"Social workers play a vital role in ensuring that people are protecting and prioritising children, and taking them on for the right reasons, not just for financial gain," Yett said.
Relatives and foster parents who took in orphans of Ebola each received a one-off payment of $150, and Togba said many of them had used the money to set up businesses and build homes.
Hanging clothes to dry outside her home in West Point in the fierce midday heat, Martina Wilson is restless as she waits for her adopted daughter to come home from school for lunch.
Wilson beams as Drolrne races around the corner and hurdles towards her, yelling "mama, mama!" with arms spread wide.
"She was sad when she arrived, after Ebola took her father, but now she is happy and most importantly, she is free."
(Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.news.trust.org))