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Ex-hedge fund manager founds school in Somaliland



CBS — Jonathan Starr tells 60 Minutes that when he founded a school in struggling Somaliland, he gave students a “chance to win” and that’s exactly what they did

The mission of Abaarso School of Science and Technology is to produce the future leaders of Somaliland.

Almost 90 percent of Abaarso’s first graduating class got accepted to international colleges, including in the U.S.

If President Trump’s travel ban goes into effect, the next group of Abaarso students headed for American universities may not be able to come.

In 2008, a man named Jonathan Starr was 32 years old and running a hedge fund in Boston. He was a millionaire, but he didn’t like his job very much, and wanted to do something to give his life purpose. He’d heard about a desperately poor African nation called Somaliland that needed help. Somaliland broke away from Somalia 25 years ago. If you’ve never heard of it before, it’s probably because it still isn’t recognized as an independent country.

Jonathan Starr went there for a visit, and that’s when he came up with a kind of crazy idea. He decided to build an American-style boarding school to help kids in Somaliland get into the best universities in the U.S. and beyond.  Starr hoped his students would then return to Somaliland as doctors, lawyers, business people, and future leaders.

It’s not easy to get to the school Jonathan Starr built. Somaliland’s capitol Hargeisa, isn’t exactly a bustling metropolis. There are few flights in, and once you’re here, it’s a bumpy ride on dusty dirt roads, past miles and miles of empty scrubland. The school sits on a remote hilltop, in what can best be described as the middle of nowhere.

It’s called the Abaarso School of Science and Technology, a boarding school that’s home to around 200 of Somaliland’s best and brightest, grades 7-12.

Anderson Cooper: What’s the goal of the school? What’s the idea of the school?

Jonathan Starr: So the mission of the school is to produce ethical and effective leaders of the country in the future.

Anderson Cooper: Future leaders of Somaliland.

Jonathan Starr, school founder. PHOTO: CBS News

Jonathan Starr: Somaliland, Somalia. The point is they’ll be future leaders in this area. And that should be everything. That should be business, government, law, health care– and we have students studying everything. So ultimately, it should work that way.

There was no guarantee it would work that way when Abaarso began accepting students in 2009…but Jonathan Starr was determined.  He’d moved to Somaliland and has spent more than half-a-million dollars of his own money building the school, recruiting the students…and hiring the teachers, nearly all of whom he found online.

Anderson Cooper: How much money were you offering to pay the teachers?

Jonathan Starr: $250 a month.

Anderson Cooper: $250 a month. To come to Somaliland.

Jonathan Starr: We cook for them; we have food for them. If they don’t leave campus, they’ll never have an expense whatsoever.

Anderson Cooper: But there’s not a lot to do here.

Jonathan Starr: No, there’s not a lot to do here.

They came anyway, mostly from America. Many had never taught anywhere before.

The curriculum at Abaarso is not much different from what you’d find in an American school. The intricacies of covalent bonding in chemistry, contemporary world literature, geometry, trigonometry, and pre-calculus.

But what makes it harder still is that nearly everything here is taught in English, and most of these kids only speak Somali when they first arrive. Since Starr’s goal is to get students into college in the U.S. and elsewhere, he insists on English immersion from Day One.

Anderson Cooper: So how do you get somebody who– doesn’t speak any English– and immerse them in an English-only program?

Jonathan Starr: I mean it’s very, very challenging. To many of them, the transition to go from where they were to here was the hardest thing they ever would have to do. And you just have to slowly piece it together.

The school starts in 7th grade and students begin by tossing around a few English phrases.

“You mustn’t, you mustn’t…you mustn’t, eh don’t be late to class. You mustn’t? You mustn’t be late to class.”

“Wouldn’t it be fine and dandy.”

Then there’s reading, lots of it.

“You know something good about me, I know something good about you.”

“All African countries are not poor.”

By 11th grade, the kids sound like they’ve been speaking English most of their lives.

Somaliland is a deeply conservative Islamic country, and on school grounds local customs are strictly followed.  PHOTO:  CBS News

“How do the words, the dirty looks, roll off your backs?”

Classes begin at 7 a.m. sharp and the kids have to be on the ball all day, and late into the night. That’s five and a half days a week, 11 months a year. The kids either catch up and catch on to Jonathan Starr’s system, or they’re out.

Jonathan Starr: We hold them to a very high standard. Every student has some job on campus and community service work. If you miss that, or if– let’s say you just skip study hall. You’re suspended.

Anderson Cooper: Suspended for how long?

Jonathan Starr: That’ll be a day. Students have found their way out of our school for not being disciplined, not doing the things that they’ve agreed to do. They know the rules of the school.

Anderson Cooper: You’ve kicked kids out.

Jonathan Starr: Many.

If a kid is kicked out of Abaarso, there aren’t a lot of other good options. Somaliland spends less than $10 million a year on its public schools, and we saw some classrooms are crammed with as many as a hundred kids. There are few colleges here for graduates to go to.

Somaliland is doing better than its neighbor Somalia, which it separated from 25 years ago, as famine and civil war plunged that country into chaos. Somalia is still one of the most dangerous places in the world, plagued by the terror group al-Shabaab. Somaliland by comparison is relatively peaceful, though at Abaarso there are armed guards and watch towers.

Anderson Cooper: And the entire compound is surrounded with a wall and barbed wire?

Jonathan Starr: Yes, it’s about 12 feet or so high

Anderson Cooper: Do you worry about security a lot?

Jonathan: We need to be. I don’t think it’s very likely that something would happen, but if something happened to one teacher, it could be game over for the entire school.

The real problem in Somaliland is poverty. This is one of the least developed places on Earth.  The economy, like the country’s biggest export livestock, is skin and bones. The main source of income is money sent from Somalilanders working overseas.

That’s how most students can afford tuition at Abaarso, which is about $1,800-a-year, a fortune when you consider that the average income in Somaliland is about a dollar a day. Those who can’t get money from extended family, get scholarships from the school. Abaarso has become an oasis of opportunity and every student is encouraged to dream big.

Sahra: Want to be a psychologist.

Anderson Cooper: You want to be a psychologist.

Female voice: I want to be a reporter.

Inside a classroom at Abaarso, a boarding school that’s home to around 200 students, grades 7-12. PHOTO:  CBS News

Anderson Cooper: You want to be a reporter?

Female voice: So– yeah.

Anderson Cooper: OK.

Female voice: Dentist.

Anderson Cooper: You want to what? Be what?

Female voice: Yes.

Anderson Cooper: A doctor?

Female voice: Yeah.

Anderson Cooper: Wow. Who wants to be a dentist? You want to be a dentist. Your teeth are very nice already.

It’s worth pointing out just how revolutionary it is to hear teenage girls in Somaliland talk about careers. Many of these girls may have already been married off by their families if they weren’t studying here. Somaliland is a deeply conservative Islamic country, and on school grounds local customs are strictly followed.

Abaarso has its own mosque, and girls and boys don’t mix outside class unless there’s a chaperone.

Jonathan Starr is not Muslim, but he does have a family connection to Somaliland.  His aunt married a man from here, whom she met in the U.S., Starr’s uncle Billeh Osman.  He was the one who convinced Starr to come for a visit and do something to help.

Anderson Cooper: You didn’t really know anything about Somaliland.

Jonathan Starr: Correct.

Anderson Cooper: Did you speak Arabic?

Jonathan Starr: No Arabic, no Somali. I tried to learn Somali but I’m not very good.

Anderson Cooper: It sounds like a disaster from the get-go.

Jonathan Starr: I also didn’t know anything about education.

Anderson Cooper: You didn’t know anything about starting a school.

Jonathan Starr: Well, I– I had– I’d been educated.

Anderson Cooper: I’d been to school, too, but I—-still wouldn’t be able to start one.

Jonathan Starr: I was a pretty good student, I had no idea I was getting into.

To help him get started, he took on a Somali partner, who talked him into building the school in this isolated spot, on land that just happened to be owned by the partner’s extended family. It turned out to be a terrible idea.

Jonathan Starr: If we look out from here there is nothing, right? There’s absolutely nothing, and nothing. And like, any way you look—

Anderson Cooper: Is there a water source here?

Abaarso students learn about covalent bonding in chemistry.  PHOTO:  CBS News

Jonathan Starr: No, there’s no water source here.

That should have been a red flag. So should the name of the closest village – Abaarso.

Jonathan Starr: Abaarso– ‘abaar’ means drought.

Anderson Cooper: That didn’t give you pause?

Jonathan Starr: I had been led to believe getting water would be no problem at all.

The water, which is now trucked in daily, was the least of his problems. Despite all his good intentions, all the money and time he’d spent on this school, Starr was still an outsider. When he got into an argument with his Somali partner over who should run the school, he says the partner spread false rumors he was trying to convert students to Christianity.

Jonathan Starr: There were some people who had been riled up, probably given some money to do it, and came to our gates and said either, you know, I go home or they’ll kill me.

Anderson Cooper: Did you ever think about going home?

Jonathan Starr: No. But I also didn’t…when I say I didn’t take it seriously…I was more mad than anything else.

Anderson Cooper: Why fight this fight here?

Jonathan Starr: There’s the noble side, “What, am I going to abandon the students? There’s no chance. There’s no chance.” If they were going to carry– they were actually going to have to kill me and carry me out. Like, that actually was going to have to happen. And the second part is the not noble part, which is I’m very competitive, and there was no way I was losing to that guy. That’s really the truth. I mean, if I could have somehow legally, cleanly had, like, a death match, I honest to God would have had a death match. I couldn’t imagine that there was life if I let this fail.

In the end, it was his students who didn’t let the school fail. In 2013, a senior named Nimo Ismail was the first Abaarso student to get into college. She was accepted at Oberlin in Ohio — on full scholarship, no less.

Jonathan Starr: When she got in, that turned everything in the country.

Anderson Cooper: In the country?

Jonathan Starr: It turned everything. At the end of the day, people want good things for their children. And Somalis want things to root for. And they wanted to root for her. You know, they want to root for their kids doing well.

Almost 90 percent of that first graduating class got accepted into international colleges.  Some 40 of Starr’s students are now in American universities on academic scholarships. Nimo is finishing up at Oberlin, Fadumo’s at Rochester. Her sister Nadira is at Yale, Mubarik is at MIT, and Abdisamad’s at Harvard.

Anderson Cooper: Do each of you plan on going back to work somehow for Somaliland?

Nadira: I think the whole reason Jonathan doing this is for us to make sure that people back home or, like, people that are less fortunate, also get the same opportunities that we get.

Anderson Cooper: So what would be a life goal?

Nimo: I think the Supreme Court is definitely the place for me.

Anderson Cooper: Being on the Supreme Court in Somaliland?

Nimo: Yes.

Anderson Cooper:  How about for you?

Fadumo: Probably, like, building a hospital and bringing a lot of equipment and bringing doctors.

Abdisimad: After, like, maybe, like, a few years working here, go back, start, like, my own business.

Nadira: Creating more opportunities for girls and seeing more girls in school.

Anderson Cooper: Empowering girls and women.

Anderson Cooper speaks with Abaarso students about their dreams for the future. PHOTO:  CBS News

Nadira: Yeah.

Mubarik Mohamoud was part of the first class to graduate Abaarso, he is now a senior at MIT, majoring in electrical engineering and computer science.

Anderson Cooper: When you heard that you got into MIT?

Mubarik: Hmmm, yeah, that was insane.

Anderson Cooper: That was insane?

Mubarik: Yeah…

Anderson Cooper: Has it been hard?

Mubarik: MIT? It’s hard, it is really hard, but the thing is, it is hard for everyone.

His English isn’t as good as most Abaarso students but his story is remarkable. He was a nomadic goat herder for much of his childhood, and knew nothing about school or the world beyond his herd until he ran away. When he showed up to take the entrance exam to Abaarso, Jonathan Starr saw his potential and gave him a scholarship.

Jonathan Starr: He’s pretty smart, to be fair. He has a terrific brain that just needed a chance.

The success of Mubarik and the other graduates has encouraged the students still at Abaarso to work that much harder.

Anderson Cooper: So how many of you want to go to college?

Female Voice: We all want to go to college–

Anderson Cooper: How many of you want to go to college in America?

Voices: Yes.

Anderson Cooper: You all want to go to college in America?

Voices: … (laughter)

Anderson Cooper: Any of you think you could be the president of Somaliland one day-

Voices: Of course.

Sahra: We’ll try to be the ministries of education, ministries of something. And we will absolutely going to try to run the country.

Anderson Cooper: So, what’s the reward for you?

Jonathan Starr: Before I did this, to me, I was a disappointment.

Anderson Cooper: You’d run a hedge fund. You’d made millions of dollars.

Jonathan Starr: Yeah. I’m not– I’m not– look, I definitely, like, have a bigger ego than the average human being. And I, at 32 years old, when I was first starting this, did not feel like I had lived up to that.  And now I feel like I got there.

Anderson Cooper: Do you see this as something you’ve done? Or do you see this as something these kids have done?

Jonathan Starr: I gave them a chance to win. And then they went in that classroom and they won.

The next group of Abaarso students headed for American colleges may not get here.  The State Department doesn’t recognize Somaliland as a country independent from Somalia and President Trump’s travel ban, held up in the courts, includes Somalia.

Produced by Henry Schuster. Rachael Morehouse, associate producer.

For more information on the Abaarso School of Science and Technology, visit their website or call


Somali graduates praise peace, harmony and good social development in Malaysia



Somali graduates Abbas Mohamad Mahdi , 28 (left), and Ahmed Derow Isak, 32, from Mogadishu, are determined to return home and work in their home country after completing both their Bachelor and Master degrees in Information Technology. Pix by Amran Hamid

SINTOK: Despite the unrest in some parts of their country, two Somali graduates from Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) are keen to return home to serve the people.

Abbas Mohamad Mahdi, 28, and Ahmed Derow Isak, 32, from Mogadishu, are determined to return home and work in their home country after completing both their Bachelor and Master degrees in Information Technology.

The duo received their Master of Science (Information Technology) from UUM Pro-chancellor Tan Sri Osman Aroff today.

Abbas said as the second of six siblings, he wanted to support his younger siblings to further their education.

“My father passed away when I was eight years old and my mother raised the family by doing odd jobs.

“I was able to further my studies here thanks to my elder sister and a younger brother who helped me financially,” he said when met.

Abbas said he chose to come to UUM after he heard about it from friends who had furthered their studies at the university.

He initially planned to further his studies in Sudan but when he came to know about the peace, harmony and good social development enjoyed by Malaysians, he decided to come here to study.

Ahmed Derow said life in Malaysia was better than Somalia but he would still return home to work in his own country.

“My wife is there and so are my siblings who have helped to finance my studies here.

I will use the knowledge and experience I gained in this country to give back to my people back home,” he said.

Ahmad Derow said although his mother has migrated to United Kingdom and he could further his studies there, the cost that he need to bear was too high.

He said Malaysians should be grateful by the various benefits that they enjoy especially in the furthering their studies locally.

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Turkish NGO puts Somali doctors through medical school



Five Somali doctors on Friday graduated from medical school under a special program organized by a Turkish NGO.

The new MDs got their diplomas from the program organized by Doctors Worldwide Turkey (DWWT) at a ceremony in Mogadishu, the capital of the Horn of Africa country.

Safa Simsek of the NGO told Anadolu Agency: “Apart from nine physicians who graduated last year from the program, which we started in 2013 in Somalia, five more doctors graduated this year, including three general practitioners and two internal medicine specialists.”

Simsek also pointed to Muhammad Osman, a 12-year-old Somali who got cataracts six years ago, and was cured by Turkish doctors in a free operation.

“To date we have performed 3,000 cataract surgeries in Somalia,” he added.

Cataracts are an eye condition that results in cloudy vision.

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The chosen



Ayan Abdi is one of 5,000 refugees at a Kenya camp vying for a scholarship – and a new life in Canada. Will she earn her way out?


Story by Kevin Sieff
Photos by Nichole Sobecki

IT WAS TIME TO GO. Ayan Abdi slipped on a long black headscarf, grabbed her refugee ID and set out for the interview that could save her life.

Since she was 2, Ayan had lived in the world’s largest refu­gee camp, a constellation of tents and huts stretching across the red desert near the Somali border. Now, a few miles from her shack built of sticks and cardboard, three examiners with a Canadian university foundation were sitting at a wooden table, deciding which students were worthy of a way out.

Ayan hurried along the sandy road. Past the piles of burning trash surrounded by giant scavenging birds. Past the girls no older than her, at 20, who balanced firewood on their heads, trailed by barefoot children. Past the group of men who stared at her — a small figure in a flowing black robe and bright red shoes — and hissed in Somali, “Where are you going, girl?”

When Ayan finally found a taxi, it was already full. She squeezed in, her whole body tense, dots of sweat on her forehead.

“I’m in a rush,” she told the driver, who didn’t ask why but careened a little faster from pothole to pothole.

A year ago, Ayan was one of about 5,000 students who jammed into classrooms across the Dadaab refu­gee camp for a two-hour exam, the first step in seeking perhaps the most generous scholarship anywhere. The World University Service of Canada, or WUSC, would award 16 of those students not just a college education but a new life, with the Canadian government providing them with citizenship and a chance to sponsor their families.

Now Ayan was one of 29 finalists, heading for the interview that would determine whether she won.

Her other options were being snuffed out. Kenyan authorities were trying to close Dadaab, which for a quarter-century had sheltered the victims of Somalia’s endless war and hunger crises. In the United States, which had resettled more than 100,000 Somalis since 2000, President Trump had ordered a temporary ban on accepting refugees. Around the world, countries were shutting their doors to people like Ayan, even as the number of refugees surged past 22 million in 2017, the highest in recorded history.

What was left was the WUSC scholarship — a chance for the bright young refugees of Dadaab to earn their way out.

“It’s life or death,” said Joseph Mutua, a program officer with the scholarship foundation in Dadaab. “That’s how it’s seen.”

In the taxi, Ayan was drumming her fingers against her knee. A printed verse from the Koran swung from the rearview mirror. On the bumper, a sticker read, “Succeed.”

The cab pulled up to a walled compound. “Is this the right place for the scholarship interview?” Ayan asked a security guard.

In her hand, which trembled, was a brown envelope with her documents. The white food-ration card that said “Family size: 1” because Ayan’s parents and siblings had returned to Somalia years ago without her. The report cards she had earned since primary school. The recommendations from a Dadaab school where she was now teaching biology.

She carried the envelope to the cinder-block building where the interviews were taking place and sat under a tree, waiting her turn. “I’m getting a headache,” she told one of the other applicants.

She looked down at the cracked screen of her white cellphone, where she had written notes reminding her what to tell the interviewers.

“This scholarship is my only way out,” it said.

“I’m the best girl in the camp based on merit,” it said.

“Here I cannot awaken my dreams,” it said.

She took a deep breath.

A middle-aged woman stepped outside and called her name.

Ayan walked inside.

THE AFTERNOON BEFORE THE INTERVIEW, Ayan had pulled two lawn chairs into the sandy expanse in front of her hut. Her best friend, Maryan Hassan, sat across from her, with a list of mock interview questions ready.

“Describe yourself,” said Maryan, 20, a tiny girl with a high-pitched voice who was also a finalist for the scholarship.

“I was born in a refugee camp in 1997,” Ayan began, in the careful English she had studied in school. “My parents are in Somalia.”

“Don’t forget to tell them what you want to do for your country,” Maryan interrupted.

Ayan nodded.

They were trying to figure out how to distinguish themselves from the other refugees. But on the Internet, all they could find were generic interview questions, so that’s what they studied.

“What are your strengths?” Maryan asked.

“My ability to collaborate,” Ayan answered, a little unsure of herself, trying to remember what she had read online. “What are yours?

“I don’t give up,” piped Maryan.

A cloud of flies hovered around their faces. The goats living nearby yapped. In both directions were rows of hundreds of huts made of whatever people could find — tin cans, tree branches, plastic sheets bleached by the sun. There were 250,000 refugees in all, surrounded by police checkpoints.

“If I get out of here,” Ayan said under her breath, “I’m never coming back.”

For years, Ayan and Maryan had watched their friends disappear, dropping out of school as they were forced to marry older men, in accordance with old Somali cultural traditions. Fatima left when Ayan was 11. Mahado when she was 13. Farhiya when she was 14. They would reemerge, sometimes years later, balancing babies in their arms, sullen and tired.

What was the point of school anyway, some of Ayan’s friends scoffed. You could finish high school, but there was little work in the camp. And refugees were not allowed to hold jobs in Kenyan cities.

Ayan was 12 when she learned of the WUSC scholarship, advertised in fliers taped to the sheet-metal walls of classrooms. It turned her from a good student who loved ad­ven­ture novels into someone whose grades were part of a grand strategy of escape.

She and Maryan taught themselves to type at the camp in a market stall called Bukhara Computer School, with a row of old IBM desktops. In 2012, both girls received scholarships to attend top high schools hundreds of miles from the camp, with college-educated teachers and new textbooks. On their phones, they would enter in the search bar: “Best Universities in Canada.”

In 2015, when Ayan was away at high school, her mother and two siblings left Dadaab and returned to Somalia. They were sick of life in the camp and worried about Kenya’s threat to deport the refugees.

Come back to Somalia, her mom said by phone from a town outside Mogadishu, the capital.

Ayan knew what that meant. No schools. Few jobs. And a constant threat from al-Shabab, the Islamist extremists who controlled nearby villages.

In Dadaab, at least there was the WUSC.

I am going to disobey you for the first time, Ayan replied.

She graduated near the top of her class and then moved back to Dadaab, into a stick hut next to the home of family friends. She covered the dirt floor with a red bedsheet and surrounded the hovel with a pile of thorny branches, to keep out the men who knew she was unmarried and alone.

“The harsh realities of life here are traumatizing,” she wrote in her personal essay for the WUSC scholarship. Women were raped when they went out to collect firewood for cooking. Children died of chronic diarrhea during cholera outbreaks. When she was filling her water bucket one morning, Ayan was stung by a scorpion.

Ayan and Maryan talked about their lives in Canada, how they would walk across green college campuses, how they would get their families to safety.

“When I see her,” Ayan said, nodding toward her friend, “I see WUSC.” Maryan smiled.

Around the world, fewer than 1 percent of registered refugees are resettled each year, and most have little or no control over the process. They are selected by U.N. agencies and approved by host governments, their fate determined by luck and charity, with the sickest and most vulnerable put at the front of the line.

The WUSC scholarship represented something different. It was about merit.

“Make sure you’re smiling,” Maryan had told Ayan as they prepared for their interviews.

Ayan was determined not to become emotional.

“It’s not professional,” she had said. “You need to show them that you’re confident.”

FIVE MINUTES HAD PASSED since Ayan climbed the steps into the cinder-block building. Then 10.

Through the screened window, the other students waiting their turn outside could see her silhouette in front of the three interviewers.

It was the middle of the afternoon, the sun slicing through sparse trees.

“It’s taking a long time,” said Mohammed Abdi, one of the applicants, looking at the building.

Finally, Ayan emerged, glancing at the students waiting in a cluster of plastic chairs.

“I think I said the right things,” she said. “I think.”

But in the next hours and days, she would replay her performance in her head, over and over.

She had walked into the cinder-block room. The three women welcomed her. Ayan remembered to shake the interviewers’ hands, even though she was so nervous she could hardly focus. One woman told her to relax, and that had helped. She sat at a wooden desk.

They asked her when she had arrived in the camp, what she remembered about the journey. Ayan told them that she had been born in another camp in Kenya but that her family had to leave after it was damaged by fire, and that was how they had wound up at Dadaab.

“I told them the name of the road we took. I told them I was just a baby.”

They asked about the importance of education.

“I told them it had shaped me emotionally.”

Then one of the administrators asked about the challenges she had faced as a refu­gee. And suddenly, the weight of it all hit her.

“I told them: ‘I’m here alone. My family has left. Without this scholarship, I have no other options.’ ”

And Ayan began to cry.

“I couldn’t stop the tears.”

The women waited.

“They handed me a tissue. I tried to get back under control.”

The questions continued. They asked what she wanted to study, and she said nursing.

They asked how she would adjust to Canada.

“I told them I would wear more clothes in the winter. I told them I would get used to the food.”

Ayan tried to hold back her tears. She didn’t want to look desperate. Finally she managed to focus on the words she had prepared.

“I said, ‘I am the best girl in the camp based on merit.’ ”

THE DAY AFTER THE INTERVIEW, Ayan walked to Hagadera Secondary School in the camp, where she teaches biology, sending most of her $80 monthly salary to her mother.

In the classroom, there were 21 boys and two girls in their mid-teens sitting on opposite sides of the room. A bell rang and class began.

“What is the difference between a plant cell and an animal cell?” she asked.

No one answered.

Ayan tried her best to push her thoughts about the scholarship to the side. It was early June, and she would have to wait about a month for the results.

“I’m 50-50,” she said one day of her chances. But a few days later she had reassessed, thinking about the caliber of the other candidates.

“I’m 20-80.”

She thought: “Maryan will get it, but I won’t. I’m going to be stuck here forever.”

She wrote a text message to a friend: “I’m not sure I convinced the interviewers.”

The WUSC committee didn’t say exactly when the announcement would come. She checked her phone obsessively.

It buzzed and buzzed, often with messages from Maryan, who lived in another part of the camp.

“We still have to wait,” Maryan wrote in the middle of the month.

The school was a reminder of all the limitations of Dadaab. The boys often ignored commands from female teachers. Islamic clerics shut down the girls’ debate team, saying it gave women the wrong idea.

More female students dropped out every week, disappearing into marriage, often by force. Ayan had tried to intervene with one of the girls’ mothers, who responded with an old Somali proverb:

“A woman should be at home or in the grave.”

In late June, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began, with its long, hot days of fasting. Ayan was desperate to get away.

She walked to the police station and applied for a temporary pass to leave the camp. She explained that she wanted to visit the family that had hosted her while she attended the private high school in Nakuru, in western Kenya.

Ayan was given a white piece of paper that allowed her two weeks outside the camp.

“I FEEL FREE HERE,” she said in the living room of the Abdirahman family’s apartment, on the bottom floor of a concrete apartment building, with a lightbulb hanging from the ceiling and a gate that opened onto a paved road and passing cars.

She wore a pale yellow headscarf, shorter than the ones that women wore outside in Dadaab. She blared songs from her phone: Nigerian pop, American hip-hop, traditional Somali music.

It was easier to forget about the scholarship here, visiting her high school friends. But occasionally they would bring it up.

“We just hope you get it,” Anisa Abdirahman, 21, said one morning.

“Dadaab is not a place for a person to live,” said Anisa’s 23-year-old brother, Mohammed.

Ayan was looking at her phone.

The scholarship finalists had created a group on the WhatsApp messaging service where they shared rumors, news — anything at all about the WUSC program. But it was silent.

“Still nothing,” Ayan said the following morning, sitting on a couch in the living room.

She threw her phone down on the cushion and went to the kitchen to make tea.

She crushed cinnamon and leaves.

“All of us, we are qualified. All of us, we are refugees,” she told Anisa as the water boiled. “Maybe it’s just luck.”

In the other room, her phone started buzzing, The screen flashed.

From the kitchen, Ayan couldn’t see it.

“Ayan, I think your phone is ringing,” Mohammed said.

Ayan cleaned her hands, picked up the phone and saw the message.


Her eyes widened.

“WUSC? Is it a prank?”

Then she saw a list on the WhatsApp group: “The Successful Candidates for 2018 WUSC scholarships.” Her name was No. 4.

She burst into tears.

“Thank God! Thank God!” she yelled.

Her friend Farhiya ran into the room. She grabbed Ayan’s hands and they danced in circles, tears rolling off Ayan’s cheeks.

“You can stop crying now,” Farhiya said.

Ayan looked again at the list for Maryan’s name. It wasn’t there. “Oh,” she groaned.

But her phone was ringing nonstop now. There were calls from other winners. Calls from her teachers. Calls from numbers she didn’t recognize.

“Alhamdulillah,” she told one friend. Praise be to God.

“It is the beginning of a new life,” she told another.

Then Maryan’s number popped up on the screen.

“Congratulations,” said the voice on the other end of the line. It sounded as if she had been crying.

“Maryan, I’m very sorry,” Ayan said.

They would have another year together. Ayan would be applying to universities in Canada, practicing her English and getting an introduction to Canadian culture. Maryan would have one more chance to apply for the scholarship — albeit with poor odds after being rejected already.

“Goodbye, sister,” Maryan said.

Ayan lowered the white phone from her ear and stared at it. More congratulatory texts were popping up. But Maryan had hung up and was gone.

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