Schooling Future Somaliland Leaders

Schooling Future Somaliland Leaders
Posted: 04/06/2009
The village of Abaarso, located about 12 miles outside of Somaliland’s capital of Hargeisa, will house a revolutionary boarding school founded by an Emory alum where the next generation of Somali leaders will be educated and trained.
(Photo: Courtesy of Jonathan Starr
Emory alum Jonathan Starr (’98C) resigned from his role as a hedge fund manager to build a nonprofit boarding school in Somaliland. Abaarso Tech, which is slated to open in the summer, is being built on land donated by a village elder. )
Unsatisfied with his job as a hedge fund manager, Jonathan Starr (’98C) left his lucrative job to pursue his long-time interest in helping talented yet underprivileged children.
Somaliland, which declared independence from Somalia in 1991 after a gruesome civil war, is still undergoing post-war recovery and rebuilding its infrastructure. Because the region, located in the Horn of Africa, remains an unrecognized state, it is unable to borrow money from the World Bank to supplement its low annual government budget estimated at $40 million.
Abaarso Tech, slated to launch this July, is the second school in Somaliland to be established by a non-Somali. Because the government can’t provide enough funding or resources to run its public schools efficiently, the educational system — from elementary to the university level — is mainly run by private sectors. Abaarso Tech will recruit Somali students who place in the top 1 percent of the eighth grade exit exams in order to train the “absolute intellectual elite,” Starr said.
“We want these kids to go to Harvard. We want these kids to go to universities in the U.S. and come back and be leaders of this country,” Starr said.
Abaarso Tech is structured similarly to the American educational system; the four-year boarding school will house students from ninth to 12th grade. The school year will begin in the fall like the American system, with a Ramadan break rather than Christmas vacation as most Somalis are Muslims. First-year students will undergo an intensive “English boot camp,” then all the classes will be taught in English except for the Somali and Arabic language classes. The curriculum will focus on math, science and logical thinking with a focus on skills such as entrepreneurship and engineering.
The school will also provide an apprenticeship system for Somali university graduates who will co-teach with fluent English-speaking teachers. This system is designed for the Somali apprentices to take the teaching skills they learn at Abaarso Tech and apply them to their future careers.
For now, the enrollment system remains open for all qualified students, even those who can’t afford the tuition. Some students will be able to participate in work-study-like jobs at local businesses in order to gain hands-on experience while paying their way through school. Currently, the board of trustees — comprised of local businessmen, leaders and Starr — is working to build a donor base to sponsor students and to receive grants in order to guarantee long-term survival of Abaarso Tech.
“I’m not worried about the funding for the first couple of years. My hope is that there’s a number of different avenues that we can go down to help both on the revenue generation and also on the donors,” Starr said, adding that Abaarso Tech has the potential to generate interest from donors from various different groups of people, including supporters of the advancement of education in Africa and Somali diaspora activists.
Somali officials and residents of the Abaarso village are supportive of the school’s establishment, Starr said. The 150,000 square-meter land — approximately 1,615 square feet — was donated by an Abaarso elder, and the Somaliland president offered to provide any non-financial assistance.
“Schools are very important for the Somali community. Even during wars, ... you have these schools being run, and you have universities,” said Yusuf Osman, a Somali-born retired United Nations official and Starr’s uncle, who suggested that Starr actualize his passion in Somaliland. “[The founders of Abaarso Tech] have such good intentions, and they’re quite courageous. ... Everybody thinks of Somalia, and they think of war and they think of pirates. But [Starr] is not afraid of any of those things.”
In a relatively homogeneous ethnic society, Starr has experienced the inevitable culture shock. The strong clan ties are “incredible,” he said, adding: “We can use a little bit of it here [in America], the degree to which you go out of your way for your 20th cousin.” Starr said he also stands out as a foreigner, attracting attention from locals. When he visited a school in Hargeisa, a large group of students swarmed Starr as if he were a spectacle. One child, Starr recalled, asked him in English: “White man, what are you doing here?”
“I got a kick out of it,” Starr said.
But Starr said the warm hospitality he received from the Somali community encouraged him to carry out his plans without second thoughts.
When Starr greeted a local man with the Somali phrase for “good afternoon,” the man spoke back to him in Somali, welcoming him and treating him as if he were a fellow Somali.
“I say one word in Somali, and suddenly they think you’re Somali,” Starr said. “The people were so accepting.”
To apply to be a teacher at Abaarso Tech this summer, visit— Contact Michelle Ye Hee Lee.

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