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Local Students’ Trip to Ethiopia Brings Focus on Orphan Crisis

By Laura Taylor

A SCENE FROM the day school where Olivia Fournier and Josh Leong were able to run programs for the children. (Photo: Courtesy Josh Leong)

Two high school students from the McLean Bible Church embarked on a whirlwind trip to Ethiopia and returned with an inspired eye to portray the country’s abandoned children crisis.

Last July, 17-year-old Olivia Fournier from Reston and 18-year-old Josh Leong from McLean joined their church on a 10-day humanitarian aid trip to Ethiopia and filmed their documentary web series, “Kings X Queens” about the abandoned children crisis.

Ethiopia banned all foreign adoption in January 2018 due to the abuse and mistreatment of adopted children. The country has since struggled with poor living conditions, cyclical orphan development and an abundance of orphan problems. The stigma against foreign adoption and the abandoned children crisis in Ethiopia has been well documented; however, most humanitarian aid organizations have been blocked from the country.

About 4.5 million children are orphans in Ethiopia, which fueled Fournier and Leong’s obligation to travel to the country alongside their church and partnering organizations.

Prior to the trip, Leong and Fournier researched the problematic orphan care in Ethiopia on a deeper level and decided to raise awareness about this little-known crisis in Ethiopia.

“When I heard about the opportunity to travel to Ethiopia, with little knowledge of the country, I immediately felt the need to go,” said Fournier. “As I started doing some research, many reports directed my attention to the orphan crisis that was taking place throughout the country. The more I read, the greater this issue became to me. I knew I had to go and see for myself what was really happening.”

As for Leong, his skills in film allowed him to raise awareness about the crisis in Ethiopia. The documentary, they say, seeks to celebrate cultural difference, promote empathy and represent the duality of a people enduring struggle yet loved by God.
“To be able to celebrate cultural difference means to embrace the traditions and customs that make Ethiopia so beautiful,” said Leong. “We don’t want to see it as a third world country, but to empathize with their lives in the same way we’d treat a neighbor. They’re not ‘the poor’ — they’re clothed in dignity. And that respect has been bestowed to them by the king — a God who loves them and knows every child by name.”

The four-episode web documentary series explores the humanitarian aid experience of Leong and Fournier as they travel to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, and surrounding villages where they visit churches, orphanages, children, and drink lots of coffee.

A GROUP PHOTO with everyone from McLean Bible Church. Leong is second from the right, with Fournier fourth from the left in the back row. (Photo: Courtesy Josh Leong)

Leong and Fournier expected to do the majority of the serving in the community, yet the community did much of the serving instead. The community welcomed the team on the first day in Tulu Bolo where they were greeted with cheers and claps from members of the church who had traveled in the thick mud. Members of the community often travel long distances to welcome those strangers who enter their community.

“Arriving at the church in Tulu Bolo was definitely a special moment,” said Fournier. “Our team ended up being a bit behind schedule, so they had already begun their church service. When we exited the bus, the voices of the people singing echoed throughout the area we were in. As we got closer, we all could feel the passion and importance in what they were doing as a community. They welcomed us into their church and graciously allowed us to observe and take part in their service.”

Today, “King X Queens” is on YouTube along with a published photo book on sale now documenting the stories seen across the world.

“We’d hope this project inspires a new generation of teens who will be able to maintain a consistent initiative and presence in Ethiopia,” said Leong. “This also involves us continuing to travel back to Ethiopia and serving alongside our partnering organizations.”

As for the memories made on the trip, Leong says his favorite memory was from the first day when the team had to walk through thick, six-inch mud to get to a remote church. It had been raining the entire week before and trudging through the thick mud on the first day remained an incredible and memorable introduction to the country.

“The memory of the mud was very memorable,” said Leong. “It was definitely an incredible introduction to the country.”