By Jonathan Starr - Somaliland’s Abaarso School has recently exploded onto the global scene, with media coverage from The New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, the BBC, CBC, and more. This coverage then reached its pinnacle when Anderson Cooper visited Somaliland for a piece that ran on CBS’s 60 Minutes. Abaarso is now featured in a book, It Takes a School, as well as in the upcoming documentary film, Somaliland: The Abaarso Story.
The reason for this media storm is quite simple; Abaarso’s students have blown away all expectations of education success. Despite coming from some of the most humble of backgrounds, Abaarso’s alumni have now proven themselves capable in the most rigorous universities in the world, including Harvard, Yale, and Brown. Perhaps the most extraordinary story of all is of Mubarik Mohamoud, a nomadic boy from the Ogaden who graduated from Abaarso in 2013 and then in June 2017 graduated from MIT with a degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. In total there are now over 100 Abaarso students continuing their education around the world, the majority in the US, and in total they’ve earned an astounding $17 million of scholarships.
While this education success is undoubtedly a great start, the real prize is in what these young adults will accomplish after their schooling is complete. At a time when droves of Somali youth are risking their lives to illegally migrate to Europe, a time when brain and muscle drain is emptying Somali neighborhoods, Abaarso’s alumni are heading in the opposite direction; they are coming home. Those who have finished their education abroad are now working to develop their country, with the majority of the first graduates now working at Abaarso as teachers and administrators. In the coming decade, hundreds of these educated and ethical students will return to create institutions that move their country forward. It is in their ethos; Abaarso students commonly remark that it is their moral responsibility to help their countrymen benefit from the same opportunities that they were fortunate enough to receive. That kind of morality is contagious.
But while the future looks bright, it is wrong to think that it is in hand and completely self-propelled. Abaarso’s alumni are going to need help if they are to achieve their potential. One of the first graduates, Nimo Ahmed Ismail, told Anderson Cooper that she eventually would like to sit on Somaliland’s Supreme Court. Nimo is well on her way, having now finished her undergraduate degree in political science at the prestigious Oberlin College, while also taking on leadership roles at Oberlin, including coordinated their judicial committee. She is precisely the ethical and deep thinker you’d want for a judge. But while Somaliland would benefit immensely from having Nimo sit on the bench, it isn’t going to happen unless she receives a full scholarship for law school. To date America has been the prime destination for Abaarso students because American universities have provided the undergraduate funding they need. However, America does not provide undergraduate law or medical schools; those are only done at the graduate level. This is where The United Kingdom should step up and do its part. To reach their potential, Nimo and her classmates need more than just American support.
Four years ago, when Oberlin bet on Nimo and MIT bet on Mubarik, those universities were taking a great chance as Abaarso and its students were unproven commodities. That is no longer the case; the data is now clear that Abaarso students can thrive in even the most rigorous of environments. And now that Abaarso’s first graduates are going against the tide and returning home, the benefits of investing in these students are accruing to their homeland. With little risk and high reward, we hope far more global institutions will take part in the development of Abaarso’s talented youth.
Jonathan Starr is the Founder of Abaarso School, Headmaster Emeritus, the Executive Director of Horn of Africa Education Development Fund, and the Author of It Takes A School.