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Wall Street-Sponsored School in Somaliland Finds Its Way in the Age of Trump

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Herding goats and camels in Somalia as a teenager, Mubarik Mohamoud had no idea he would go to college – let alone attend one of the world’s most prestigious universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Mohamoud is one of the few students who have come to the U.S. from Somaliland, an autonomous region of Somalia that is not yet internationally recognized as a sovereign state. Mohamoud grew up in a poor village on the border of Kenya and Somalia. Against the odds, he attended a public school until 9th grade – when he was accepted to Abaarso School of Science and Technology, an educational institution founded by ex-hedge fund manager Jonathan Starr and funded, in part, by Wall Street donors.

Born and raised in Worcester, Mass., Starr started his career at Fidelity Investments and then founded his own hedge fund, Flagg Street Capital, in 2004. Four years later, he visited Somaliland, his aunt’s husband’s home country, and decided to found a school where the country’s top students could prepare to attend international universities, mostly in the U.S.. Starr says he wanted to give young minds like Mohamoud the opportunity to get a well-rounded education in English, then go back and build their country back up after all the destruction it’s faced after a three-year long civil war that ended in 1991.

“When the next Mubarik comes around, he doesn’t have to work for Google,” Starr says. “He can work for Mubarik.” Starr’s ultimate goal is a self-sustaining Somaliland.

Abaarso takes its name from the village where it’s located; “abaar” also means “drought” in Somali. Abaarso is like no other school in Somaliland: once accepted, Somali students pay as much (or as little) as they can afford of the annual $1,800 tuition. The rest is covered by Starr and his Wall Street connections.
“I dare you to come meet these kids and not think that it is worth investing in them,” Starr says. Abaarso’s supporters include USAID, as well as big Wall Street firms like JP Morgan Chase, Credit Suisse, Bank of America, billionaire David Einhorn’s GreenLight Capital hedge fund, and executives from Goldman Sachs and from other hedge funds. Since 2009 the school has raised a little over $3 million, and in Somaliland, where GDP per capita is $347, that pays the bills for around 210 students in grades 7 to 12. Starr, however, wants to reach out to donors outside of Wall Street. He is preparing to launch a women-only teacher’s college in Somaliland this fall and hopes the project will morph into an all-encompassing university for women.

Each year, Abaarso School sends a few students to finish high school in the U.S. and around a dozen students to attend American universities, where the students have been able to obtain scholarships. But since February, when President Trump issued an executive order that seeks to ban travel from certain countries – including Somalia, Abaarso’s students have been more uncertain about a future in the U.S.. Somaliland, which is not recognized by the U.S. as a sovereign state, was included in the ban as well.

Trump’s executive order has been blocked by two federal appeals courts since it was signed in February. Most recently, on June 12, it was rejected by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco. The President wants the Supreme Court to review the hold on the ban before the end of June. Amid all the legal back and forth, the uncertainty has changed some Abaarso students’ plans.

Some of the students have scholarships that pay for their flight back to Somaliland for their summer break, but Starr says that this summer, no one is going home for fear of not being allowed back. Fahima Ali, who just got into Columbia University after attending Abaarso for two years (she spent the last two years of high school in upstate New York), is not seeing her parents this summer. “I really cried a lot,” Ali says, remembering the day she heard about the executive order, “because it wasn’t even only for me, it was for my friends, and for Shukri who got into Wellesley.”

Current Abaarso students who have been accepted to schools in the U.S. are now preparing for the worst case scenario. Two students – one accepted to Wellesley College and the other to Phillips Academy, a prestigious boarding school in Andover, Mass., on full scholarship – are hoping to make it through the visa process without any trouble from the looming ban.

In the future, the students might even be forced to look elsewhere. Since the announcement of the executive order in February, international schools in India, Bosnia and Canada have stepped forward and announced scholarships for Abaarso students who could be affected in case the ban is implemented.

Even without President Trump’s executive order, these students and their families face tough constraints. “They’re already being vetted really hard,” Starr says. Most of the parents cannot come see their kids in the U.S. due to both a lack of funds and visa issues.

“What people don’t understand is that the embassies were not handing out visas in the first place,” Starr claims. Of the six countries included in the travel ban, Somalia had the highest refusal rate for tourist visas in the fiscal year 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs. For every 100 Somalis who apply, only about 36 get a visa.
In early June, Mohamoud graduated from MIT with a degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke to MIT’s graduating class, challenging them to think big. “When you work towards something greater than yourself, you find meaning, you find purpose,” Cook said. “So the question I hope you will carry forward from here is: ‘How will you serve humanity?’”

Mohamoud will soon start a six-month internship at Vanu, a Massachusetts software engineering company. Then he will return to MIT to get a master’s degree in computer science. “At the end of the day, I want to go back as soon as possible,” the young graduate adds. Four former Abaarso students who are graduating this year from various U.S. universities are already going back to Abaarso to teach.

And ultimately, it is a matter of getting a chance at better opportunities, according to Starr. If America is not an option, he says, and Cairo is, then the Abaarso students will go to Cairo to study.

The students are optimistic, Fahima Ali says, the Abaarso student headed to Columbia University: “No matter what, the good things about this country and about the people who live in this country outweigh the bad things.”

Briefing Room

From Refugee Camp, Young Somali Lands Spot at Princeton

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Last August, Asad Hussein boarded the back of a truck in Dadaab, Kenya, sitting with other passengers among sacks of beans being transported to Somalia’s capital.

The truck headed east across the desert over the Somali border and deep into territory controlled by al-Shabab, the violent extremist group, on its way to Mogadishu.

The 700-kilometer trip, which Hussein wrote about in The New York Times,represented a chance for him to see where his father grew up. Now, he’s preparing for a new journey after being accepted by one of the world’s most prestigious universities.
The 22-year-old refugee plans to join the class of 2022 at Princeton University, in the eastern U.S. state of New Jersey.

Life in a refugee camp

Hussein was born in Dadaab, one of the world’s largest refugee camps, in 1996. His parents and older sister had fled the war in Somalia five years earlier in search of a new life. Dadaab was meant to be temporary, but it became home.

Hussein’s sister, Maryan, immigrated to the United States in 2005 with her husband and son. Only 11 years later did the siblings reunite, when Maryan returned to Dadaab on a visit that Hussein also wrote about in The Times.

“The life in Dadaab is basically stranded,” Hussein told VOA’s Somali service in a phone interview Monday, after tweeting about his admission a couple of days ago. “You are not allowed to work or to do anything just as a refugee, and the word ‘refugee’ comes with so many restrictions.”

Despite those limitations, Hussein said, people were determined to make lives for themselves. They had escaped war, and they were bound to keep fighting.

The key, people told Hussein, was education.

“I was always told that, you know, ‘You need to go to school and do something,’ and things like that. And that’s my childhood.”

The sprawling Dadaab camp’s infrastructure includes schools. Hussein said he finished high school in 2014, “and for three years I have been trying to get into university.”

Meanwhile, Princeton – which admitted just 5.5 percent of all applicants for the class of 2022 – has been among some U.S. colleges and universities trying to diversify their student bodies. That includes welcoming academic high achievers who, like Hussein, may not have the financial means independently. Hussein said he’s been offered a full scholarship to Princeton, which estimates that tuition, room, board and fees will total $70,010 for the next academic year.

In the university’s 2021 graduating class, 13 percent are international students – with representation from 11 African nations.

Founded in 1746, “Princeton has depended since its inception, and depends today, on the talent and contributions of newcomers to this country,” its president, Christopher L. Eisgruber, wrote last month in an annual letter to the campus community.

Last week, Princeton joined 30 other colleges and universities in challenging the Trump administration’s proclamation to restrict immigration from several Muslim-majority countries. The university filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court to support the state of Hawaii’s challenge, it said in a news release.

An ‘incredible achievement’

Ty McCormick, the former Africa editor at Foreign Policy, about President Donald Trump’s travel ban after reading his work in The Times.

“He’s an extraordinary young man: brilliant, focused, and driven to better himself and those around him,” McCormick told VOA.

“Although I have become a mentor of sorts, I think it’s fair to say I’ve learned more from him than he has from me. All of the credit for this incredible achievement belongs to him. He overcame tremendous obstacles to get where he is – obstacles most of us can’t fully comprehend. My hat is off to him,” McCormick said in a written response.

‘People who can do something’

Hussein wrote about the frustrations of camp life for Foreign Policy early last year: “The words I write may travel all around the world, but I am confined to the refugee camp where I was born. I can’t move freely in Kenya; I need a permit to leave Dadaab. My whole life, it seems, I’ve been living the American dream. I just don’t know how much longer I can bear to live it outside of America.”

Hussein hopes his achievement will change people’s minds about what refugees can accomplish.

“When we hear of refugees, we always think of people who are a liability, people who want something,” he told VOA. “… So I’m glad that my story shows that refugees are actually people who can do something.”

Now, Hussein’s journey will take him to the same campus that produced theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, former President Woodrow Wilson and first lady Michelle Obama.

Hussein, an avid fiction reader, said he wants to study English and history. And, for the first time since he was 9, he will live in the same country as his parents and sister.

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Somalia: Turkish foundation’s school hosts 500 students

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Turkiye Diyanet Foundation (TDV) on Tuesday said the Sheikh Sufi Imam Hatip High School in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, which it restored six years ago, currently hosts 500 students.

According to Turkey’s religious services consultant in Somalia Ahmet Akturk, numerous students were orphans. TDV said 270 of these students are boarders.

”All of the students’ costs are covered by TDV and the foundation will make sure the students continue their university studies,” he added.

Turkey began to set up various projects in Somalia in 2011 when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched an initiative to help the East African country, which was undergoing a famine due to drought.

The initiative later grew to other humanitarian activities and educational projects, according to the statement.

Sheikh Sufi Imam Hatip High School, which has existed in Mogadishu since 1960, stopped functioning in 1991 due to civil war.

According to TDV , a new protocol signed with the Ministry of Education of Somalia in 2012 led to the resumption of educational activities.

Approximately 2,000 students apply to the school every year but only a hundred are accepted due to quota restrictions.

Eleventh grade student Muhammad Hasan said the school was a “great opportunity” for all students there.

“We get a combination of scientific and religious knowledge, we learn in the best way,” Hasan added.

According to Leyla Sherif, another student, the school provides not only education but safety and health services too.

“Our school is one of the best schools in Somalia. We learn both religion and science and my favorite course is Turkish,” Leyla added.

Since 2011, TDV has built centers for the disabled, hospitals, and orphanages in Mogadishu.

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

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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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