There are life goals some may label impossible and others, unrealistic. But Worcester native Jonathan Starr — ready to leave the financial world to find a way to “make a difference” — chose to use a half-million dollars and his backbone on a project far from home. He invested in children, targeting the future.
Then 32, Starr created a boarding school within the tiny African country of Somaliland, an autonomous state officially considered part of Somalia. Launched in 2009, the Abaarso School of Science and Technology is home to over 200 students. Its seventh- to 12th-graders — boys and girls — board there, studying science, literature, mathematics and other college-preparatory subjects. They seek better futures than might have been, and eventual leadership roles in their homeland.
Now 40, Starr has just watched the first group of Abaarso students graduate from colleges and universities in the United States and abroad. About 100 Abaarso graduates are currently continuing their education around the world, most in the U.S. Most would not have made it without the school.
Starr has written a book, “It Takes a School: The Extraordinary Story of an American School in the World’s #1 Failed State,” published in February by Macmillan Henry Holt, hoping to inspire others who might teach or found other schools, and to build on Abaarso’s future. Vignettes in the book describe children who came to Abaarso to prepare for college while developing personal strength and character. Tenacity, Starr calls it. For some, this is the only chance; little awaits them outside of the school. Admission is hotly competitive; Abaarso accepts students who show promise, regardless of a lack of earlier opportunities.
“This year, there were 1,500 applicants for 50 spots in seventh grade,” Starr said. Eventually, he may add more schools. More immediately, he will launch a women’s university at a different site.
The school started with teachers from the U.S. and abroad — the kind of people dedicated to educating those who would otherwise go ignored, regardless of low pay. “That first year, I have no idea how we convinced people to come,” he said. “We didn’t get many, but it was great to have them. They are the trailblazers.”
In the early years, community resistance proved dangerous and made it difficult to achieve acceptance — “It got ugly,” he says. Other entrepreneurs might have walked out long before, but he refused to quit the students he’d grown to love and the dreams he had created with them.
With the first college acceptance, to Nimo Ismail from Oberlin College, came widespread approval: Starr was getting the job done, not offering empty promises.
A Worcester Academy graduate and summa cum laude economics graduate from Emory University, Starr knew what a difference quality education makes in young lives. His initial career in hedge fund investment provided savings, the means to go ahead. He provided hands-on direction. It’s been eight years, and now the school sends graduates to colleges and universities far from home, such as Harvard, Yale, Oberlin, MIT, Brandeis and Holy Cross in this country — 40 this year. Sixty more attend foreign schools. The kids are doing the work, proving their ability to succeed. And word has spread. Anderson Cooper has profiled Abaarso for “60 Minutes,” as have other news outlets.
Starr lives in Westboro with his wife; they have a toddler and a second child on the way. He continues to oversee adminstrative operations of the school as well as fundraise. He returns to Somaliland as needed.
“I could have been in finance my whole life, but I wanted to see something different, to be in a different environment and culture. And I thought it would be ‘fun’ to work with kids.
“This was the single best opportunity I was probably going to have to do something special. I had life flexibility, without a family depending on me. I was still relatively young. It was special — a chance to make a difference.”
“Altogether, the school has taken in $3 million in donations for everything, including a campus,” he said. An uncle from Somaliland, who lives in Brooklyn, went there with him first, to view the country and talk with people.
“I had heard much about Somaliland; I knew through him I would have some contacts.”
The small country — autonomously controlled, northwest of Somalia — is 53,000 square miles but sparsely populated, with many there living nomadic lifestyles.
“There had been many a foreigner who turned around and left,” he said. “I wanted to like it; I hoped I would see something positive. Some would objectively say ‘Oh, my God that’s terrible,’ and I would say ‘That’s something I want to do.’ It was an emotional decision.”
It was not a cinch. He shares his mistakes in the book — he discovered the site chosen for the school had no water. Water has to be delivered daily. He also has a frightening memory of the day a government soldier with an AK-47 came to deport him. Someone led a newspaper and web campaign against the school, creating suspicion.
“My intentions were good and it had never occurred to me people wouldn’t welcome me with open arms,” Starr said. “In hindsight, it’s completely ridiculous that that wouldn’t occur. This country has been isolated for decades; a lot of people have never seen a non-Somalian. So there was not trust in newness. Some said we’d ‘missionize’ the children; do bad things to them. At one point, somebody wrote ‘Let’s kill four of them, and the rest will go home’ on a website.
“Had I known the challenges going in, I don’t know if I would have done it. But by the time it happened, I loved these kids. I was in. I couldn’t consider abandoning my children. I would have died. It would have been death to me anyway. That’s truly how I felt.”
They waited it out. “The main way we got through it was just by succeeding. When word came that a student (Nimo Ismail) was going to Oberlin on a full scholarship, it made the school’s image stronger and stronger. There was some criticism, but over time, it declined.”
The first students were college-bound, with full scholarships, around 2013.
“We sent a student to Harvard two years later — even the nomads knew what Harvard meant. The president of the country gave him an award. A year later, a girl was accepted to both Yale and Dartmouth. She’s now at Yale. People began saying, ‘this is incredible;’ they no longer wanted to hear bad things about the school. It went from being cool to attack us, to very uncool to not like us. Our kids won.”
Teachers at Abaarso make sure the students speak English before they leave, in a rigorous learning environment. They focus on tenacity, which they’ll need when they go to another country. “They know they overcame that, and know we care about them a lot. It helps.”
He laughs at the suggestion that he could be the male Oprah (Winfrey, who also founded a school in South Africa). “One of my students could be,” he said. “She is well on her way to being the Somali Oprah.”
Starr and his team plan a women’s university next, with a slow start in the fall. Eventually, more schools are planned. “I want to build slowly and carefully. We only take the amount of kids we can reasonably teach. We don’t need more schools just to have schools.”
His book’s aim is to tell others what they are doing at Abaarso, and why. “If they read the book, they’ll feel close to it. I felt it was a very good way to document the story of Abaarso. I want to engage people to support what we’re doing, or inspire people to do their own school somewhere else. People ask us to put a school in another country … we can’t, but maybe they can do it.”
Jobs in Somaliland require more education and training than typical for residents, so the returning Abaarso students, with degrees, will be able to train others for those jobs.
“They have to bring in Chinese, Pakistanis, Kenyans. All the key skills positions are run by international people and that’s a huge holdup to their economic development. If you get these kids back in the country, they can do something. Somalis would prefer to hire their own, they just don’t have that option yet. They will, with our students.”
From Refugee Camp, Young Somali Lands Spot at Princeton
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.
I have been accepted to @Princeton (Class of 2022) and it feels surreal. Many people, in Dadaab and beyond, made this possible and I am indebted to all, but it was my sister Maryan who first let me dream and tended to my life as one would for a seedling. Thank you, Maryan. pic.twitter.com/O8HYQ1pLO6
— Asad Hussein (@asadhussein_) March 31, 2018
‘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.
Somalia: Turkish foundation’s school hosts 500 students
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.
Somali graduates praise peace, harmony and good social development in Malaysia
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.