Writing A Success Story In Somaliland

Since Jonathan Starr established Abaarso, the secondary school has placed more than 80 students in international boarding schools or colleges.

By James Sullivan

It was no ordinary test for Mubarik Mohamoud. As the first student from the Abaarso School of Science and Technology to be accepted into an American school, Mubarik could create untold opportunities for his schoolmates with a successful transition to Worcester Academy.

On the other hand, if he stumbled, his peers’ hopes might be dashed.

Jonathan Starr, a former hedge fund manager who started Abaarso eight years ago in the breakaway African republic of Somaliland, chuckles as he recalls his demanding expectations for Mubarik. When he learned that his prize student was worried “the entire future is on his shoulders,” he responded, “Good! He’s been listening.”

Starr, who lives in Westborough with his wife and baby daughter, spent four years in Somaliland building a high school campus out of the unforgiving rubble on the outskirts of the capital city, Hargeisa. He has just published a book, “It Takes a School: The Extraordinary Story of an American School in the World’s No. 1 Failed State,” about his rash decision to bring a rigorous education to the former region of Somalia, and the remarkable group of teachers and students who brought that vision to reality.

Since Jonathan Starr established Abaarso, the secondary school has placed more than 80 students in international boarding schools or colleges.
Since Jonathan Starr established Abaarso, the secondary school has placed more than 80 students in international boarding schools or colleges.

By his early 30s, Starr had amassed significant wealth and achievement as a systems savant for Fidelity Investments and later with his own hedge fund, Cambridge-based Flagg Street Capital. But he still felt a nagging desire to do something meaningful with his life.

While working in finance, he volunteered as a Boys and Girls Club basketball coach. After leading a winning season with an underskilled team from the suburbs, he jumped to another club closer to Boston, where the players were more talented. But they were growing up in dysfunction.

“The kids lived such chaotic lives; we had no shot,” Starr says.

It was a hard-earned lesson: Create a positive, pervasive culture, and success would follow. But how and where?

A movie buff, he was drawn to inspirational classroom films like “Stand and Deliver,” the 1988 story of East Los Angeles math teacher Jaime Escalante. And for some time, he writes in his book, he had harbored an idea “to start a school for really talented kids who have great potential that will otherwise go wasted.’’

He was aware of the challenges of students in Somaliland because he has an aunt who married a man from there. Growing up, he loved playing Somali card games on family vacations with his beloved Uncle Billeh, who worked for the United Nations. In 2008, it all came together.

When Starr first set out to find a location for his project, he had no experience building a school — or even teaching, for that matter. He would become the school’s first headmaster, turning over the reins to his assistant in 2015. What he did have, besides determination, was money: He initially put forth $500,000 and to date he’s funneled nearly twice that into the school.

When he first arrived in Somaliland, almost all of the republic’s schools had been destroyed or run into the ground by the Somali civil war. Covering grades 7-12, Abaarso, named for the town the school is in, now serves 212 students on its walled, multibuilding campus. Acceptance is competitive. The staff has grown to about two dozen teachers who come from various corners of the world. They each wear several hats and earn a nominal salary — about $3,000 for the school year. They do it for one reason, Starr says — pride in a job well done.

And there is much to be proud of. To date, Abaarso has placed more than 80 students in international boarding schools or colleges.

Mubarik graduated from Worcester Academy — Starr’s alma mater — in 2013. This spring, after majoring in electrical engineering and computer science, he’ll graduate from M.I.T. Having specialized in autonomous robotics, he’d like to help engineer driverless cars. It’s an astounding trajectory for a boy who grew up in a world so rural, he mistook the first motor vehicles he saw to be some kind of bizarre domesticated animal.

 “I do not feel exceptional,” says Mubarik, “but I do feel lucky.”

For Starr, his belief in the young people of Somaliland was simply a practical matter.

“If you get the kids to see it’s actually worth investing in their future,” he says, “then they’ll do well.”

Because Somaliland is considered an autonomous region of Somalia, the Trump administration’s recent ban on travel from seven mostly Muslim nations — including Somalia — has plunged the Abaarso community into a spiral of uncertainty.

“It definitely makes me nervous,” says Mubarik, speaking on the phone recently during a break in his studies. “But I am hopeful.”

Students at Abaarso
Students at Abaarso

Starr frets that the travel ban could mean Abaarso will have to stop sending its best students to America for college. If he could show Mubarik’s progress to the president and his administration, he says — in fact, the school’s story is scheduled to be featured in an upcoming “60 Minutes” segment — he believes they would recognize the need to make exemptions.

Though he has returned to Massachusetts to start his own family, Starr still spends several weeks each school year at Abaarso. He continues to work full time, and then some, on behalf of the school, planning, fund-raising, and advocating for its students at American colleges and boarding schools.

Besides Mubarik, four other students from Abaarso’s inaugural year are set to graduate from American universities this spring. One of them, an intensely goal-oriented young woman named Nimo Ismail, is completing her studies at Oberlin College.

“She’s known I want her to be the attorney general of Somaliland for so long,” says Starr.

At least two of the graduating seniors plan to return to Abaarso to join the faculty. For Starr, that’s a milestone he’s been eagerly awaiting.

Mubarik may stay in the United States to work toward his master’s degree, or he might go back to help introduce more Somaliland kids to computers. Either way, Starr wants all the students his school sends overseas to become the future of their homeland.

“Here he can be great,” he says. “There, he can be king.”

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com and on Twitter @sullivanjames.

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