A Mending Kids success story

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Werkneh Ourga came to Malibu 16 years ago and had many host families here. He’s had 18 surgeries on his hands, but also became a U.S. citizen, wrote a book and graduated college. Contributed Photos

An update on a beloved young man, Werkneh Ourga, who grew up in Malibu

The old phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child,” is certainly true in the case of Werkneh Ourga. Many in Malibu remember Werkneh, who arrived in Malibu 16 years ago through the charity Mending Kids. Local families participate by hosting children from all over the world, providing them with life-saving surgeries they would otherwise be unable to undergo in their home countries. One success story is Werkneh Ourgawho made a big impression on Malibu.

Werkneh was born into poverty in a remote village in Ethiopia. School was not an option. Working on the family farm was expected but became impossible when large tumors grew on his hands making for an uncertain future.

“My hands were like a soccer ball,” Werkneh recounted.“They became infected and caused a lot of pain.”

Werkneh was sent to an orphanage for extremely sick children in Addis Ababa. “It was a nightmare,” he said, but somehow, he connected with a doctor. “I was fortunate.”  

That doctor reached out to Mending Kids with its large presence in Malibu. 

A Pepperdine family took Werkneh in for his first surgery at Cedars-Sinai. 

“I had never been on an airplane, never seen a car, TV. For me, everything was shocking,” he said, describing himself as an 8-year-old boy. “I was crying every day, having a hard time. My hand was in pain. I didn’t fit in the culture. The food was different.”

Life changed when Werkneh met a group of Malibu moms at church who had children at Webster Elementary. “I wanted to go to school. I didn’t even know how to write,” he recalled. 

The moms brought him to school. 

One of Werkneh’s host parents said when he showed up at Webster, a teacher asked the late principal Phil Cott what to do since Werkneh wasn’t officially enrolled, and Cott answered, “Teach him.” 

So Werkneh started fifth grade despite not knowing how to read or write. “I remember being in class holding a book upside down,” he chuckled. He learned quickly and had a gift for making friends. It seemed all the kids and parents at Webster knew Werkneh. 

He charmed everyone he encountered. A classroom volunteer, Melissa Merwin, fondly recalled when helping Werkneh read, he asked if he could sing to her. And so, he did. 

Werkneh credits Cott for helping jump-start his education and working around his medical visa to enroll at Webster. “For what I’ve gone through, a lot of pain, there are people like that who believe in me,” Werkheh said. “He brought so much light in my life. Everyone was so nice to me.” Werkneh remains friends with Webster students to this day. 

After going to Webster, at age 10 Werkneh had to return home. He wasn’t able to help his family, though, due to the disability still affecting his hands, so his Malibu host family sponsored him at a boarding school to continue his education in Ethiopia and paid for him to return every summer to visit and have surgery. 

He’s had 18 surgeries and has more upcoming. An episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” was based on his condition. In 2016 during government unrest in Ethiopia, Werkneh was “terrified” of possible conscription to the army. When his boarding school was closed for holidays, he had no safe place to go. “It was unstable,” he said. “There were firearms going off. I was traumatized.” 

Werkneh came back to Malibu but needed a new host family. Susie and Larry Laffer heard about Werkneh through her brother, Dr. David Kulber, his surgeon. 

“It was a blessing,” said Susie Laffer. He lived with the Laffers in Thousand Oaks, attending Westlake High, running track and field, playing soccer, and as a teenager gave TEDx Talks on motivation. 

Communities in Malibu, Thousand Oaks, and Pacific Palisades rallied around him to raise money for his asylum case and a green card.

After graduating from Westlake in 2017, more fundraisers were held for college and college prep courses. He got a partial scholarship to Azusa Pacific and received financial support from a few local families. A marketing major with a minor in finance, Werkneh graduated from APU in 2023. He became a U.S. citizen in 2022.

He now works in the insurance industry but is looking for a job better suited to his major.  “It’s tough right now,” the 24-year-old reflected. “Not just for me but for a lot of other young people.”  

Werkneh lives near Pasadena and is saving for a car. He thanks his many supporters. 

“The Malibu community has been really amazing to me,” he said. “They welcomed me. I apply all I learned, those principles. I’m appreciative of what all the families did, supporting me, believing in me. They showed me work ethics, being a good person brings amazing things in life.” 

Susie Laffer commented, “He had a lot of moms.”

Werkneh wrote a book aptly titled, “Helping Hands.” He’s looking for a publisher.