Mary Ellen Jebbia knows firsthand that the fight against malaria is more complicated than dispensing bed nets.
The USC College senior spent three weeks in Malawi fighting malaria this summer through a Faiths Act Fellowship provided by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
Many people in Malawi had bed nets but did not use them, Jebbia said. Superstition prevented some from utilizing them.
“It’s a cultural superstition,” she said. “Women believed if they slept under the bed nets, they would become barren.”
Some simply didn’t know how to assemble them. Others opted to use them as fishing nets.
“They thought, ‘Between using it on the bed and using it to get something to eat, if I can’t eat, I’m certainly not going to live,’ ” Jebbia said. “It’s much more than just a disease that we need to get rid of. It’s a problem of poverty.”
The fellowship took her and 29 other young people of faith from throughout the world to London for training at the Interfaith Youth Core and the Tony Blair Faith Foundation before their destination of Malawi. After that, they went to Chicago, where they received training to create an action plan from officials with the two organizations.
In Malawi, she and other students met with fund-raising and government officials, malaria patients and their doctors. To better experience the various faiths in the southeastern African county, she fasted for Ramadan with Muslims, and with Catholics, attended the first holy communion of about 300 children.
After their return in September, the fellowship continued. From October to May, students will be in various cities located in their country of origin working on reducing malaria as a part of the Millennium Development Goals — a set of objectives that 192 United Nations member states and at least 23 international organizations have agreed to achieve by the year 2015.
In addition to combating malaria, AIDS and additional diseases, other goals include eradicating poverty, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender quality and empowering women, and ensuring environmental sustainability.
“If we can get a grip on malaria, we can achieve many of the Millennium Development Goals,” said Jebbia, explaining that malaria prevents patients from working and children from going to school, creating a cycle of poverty.
Pregnant women and children are the most susceptible to the disease. By combating malaria, Jebbia hopes to educate women and children, taking crucial steps toward sustainable health.
Jebbia has a triple major in religion and Japanese at USC College and in business administration at the USC Marshall School of Business. Her minor is in international relations. Her interest in religion led her to joining the Interfaith Council in the Office of Religious Life. She became further interested in participating after reading the biography of Varun Soni, the dean of religious life.
“I thought, ‘Whoa. He’s done some of the things I would like to do,’ ” she said. “He went to Harvard Divinity School. He studied in India as a Buddhist monk, which I was looking into. It got me interested.”
While in Malawi, Jebbia got to know a university student inflicted with the vector-borne infectious disease that strikes an estimated 350 to 500 million people each year, killing between one and three million. Malaria is among the most serious health problems in Malawi, which is located along a mosquito-laden lake.
“My whole reason for fighting malaria has changed now,” said Jebbia, a devout Mahayana Buddhist. “I knew that my own faith tradition called me to action. But now I know people in Malawi who have malaria, and I know that they’re just like me. They’re ambitious, but they have this disease preventing them from doing what they want to do.”
Born and raised in Arcadia, Jebbia, 21, is the eldest of two children. Her sister, Mallory, is a sophomore in biological chemistry at USC College. Her parents are USC alumni. Her father is a real estate broker and an attorney, and her mother is an accountant.
After graduation, Jebbia hopes to work with a service organization focusing on an interfaith youth movement.
“I don’t know exactly what that means yet,” she admitted. “But I want to work with young people and help them connect with each other. I think that’s so powerful for our world today.”
As a Tony Blair fellow, Jebbia met Eboo Patel, the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core. She said the two shared a passion for the organization’s objective to build mutual respect among young people from different religions by empowering them to work together to help others.
“This fellowship feels like a dream, and I still don’t know how I got here,” Jebbia recalled telling Patel.
“You know, I wake up every morning and I thank my lucky stars,” she recalled him replying. “It feels like a dream to me too.”
Jebbia currently is in Boston working with leaders of the Jewish and Buddhist communities as well as interfaith organizations to create an interfaith action plan aimed at eradicating malaria throughout the world.