Buy now! - Learn more about Abaarso's extraordinary story in Abaarso Founder, Jonathan Starr's, new book "It Takes A School"
It started as an abstract vision in 2008—to build a transformative school in a place the world had written off as hopeless.
To achieve this goal, founder Jonathan Starr and his team had to overcome profound cultural differences and withstand threats. They also had to win over the hearts and minds of a skeptical local population.
Through unwavering perseverance and a belief in the possible, the faculty and students, against all odds, have come to achieve success beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. With over 80 students now attending top international boarding schools and universities, including MIT, Yale and Harvard, these students have proven that they can compete with anyone in the world and are poised to become the future leaders of their nation.
Abaarso School’s history began with an oddity – an American financier named Jonathan Starr donating a half million dollars and moving to Somaliland with the goal of setting up a great school. Jonathan and his staff of foreigners did not know the local customs, did not speak the language, and had only a few professional educators. As they formed the largest collection of Americans in a country that had become isolated from foreigners, naturally, many local Somalis met them with great suspicion. A handful of others saw the ignorant foreigners as easy prey.
Abaarso’s first few years were extremely challenging. Students entered 9th grade having only learned through rote memorization, yet still lacking fundamental elementary school skills. The country was still suffering from the fallout of a brutal civil war, with people thinking about survival, not the long-term; a tough backdrop to establish a school culture based on integrity. What’s more, the students and staff faced the constant distraction of fighting off bad elements set on taking advantage of the foreigners and even destroying the school’s very existence.
Nonetheless, the students and faculty formed a strong bond, mutually motivated by the success they were finding. New students arrived wanting to reach the level of the first students. With incredible dedication, the fundamentals of academics and character began to take shape.
It was in this period that great individuals became early pillars that lifted the school. Harry Lee, teacher and later Assistant Headmaster, worked 90-hour weeks to build the school’s culture and defend Abaarso’s future. Mubarik Mohamoud, a student from a nomadic family, who entered Abaarso without a word of English, opened the world’s eyes when he attained a scholarship to Worcester Academy and put up remarkable grades, including a perfect ‘5’ in AP Calculus. Abaarso staff showed their students the value of tenacity, staying the course despite terrorist warnings and nasty rumors spread throughout society.
By the end of calendar year 2012, Abaarso was under immense pressure from within Somaliland, but these external forces had also brought the students and staff together to fight for their future and for what was right. The tide would soon change.
On February 1st 2013, Nimo Ahmed Ismail became the 1st Somaliland or Somalia student in what is believed to be 3 decades, to gain a scholarship to a US college. Nimo’s acceptance was followed by a series of others, including Mubarik Mohamoud earning a scholarship to MIT. By the end of the acceptance season, Abaarso had 19 students at or heading to US colleges and boarding schools, and 6 others gaining scholarships elsewhere in the world. Famous, centuries old institutions like Georgetown and Oberlin were to have Abaarso students learning within their walls. What’s more, Abaarso had become a feeder school for the Akwanya Scholars program of the MasterCard Foundation. This meant qualified Abaarso students could attain scholarships for higher education possibilities in the years to come.
2013 was also a year in which Abaarso students on scholarship at US boarding schools proved that Mubarik’s success was no fluke. These students left their own improbable mark, including Deqa Aden, who became the first foreign student in Worcester Academy’s institutional memory to win their public speaking competition. Deqa also finished as top delegate in a Model UN competition held at Boston College. At the same time, Mohamed Hussein was proving that not only could he compete with American students in the classrooms of the prestigious Northfield Mount Hermon School, he could also outrun Americans in cross-country and track. Mohamed ended his NMH career with 2 New England course records and was named Gatorade Massachusetts Cross Country Runner of the Year. He would go on to become an All-American at Amherst. These leaders were showing the world what Abaarso students were capable of, while also displaying the possibility for excellence to their schoolmates back in Abaarso.
Several staff members from the 2013 staff are worthy of mention, including Jake Galloway and Kelly Heller, the Deans of Students who enforced a proper discipline over student life. Perhaps the most unforgettable performance was by Suzanne Hunter, English teacher, college counselor, and leader of Abaarso’s community service work in the Hargeisa Orphanage. Suzanne’s all-around performance was exceptional, but her commitment to the orphans is what transformed Abaarso’s community service from perfunctory to love. Abaarso’s students now taught in the orphanage 3 days/week because they loved to help their students, and they were rewarded with 4 orphans making the cut to join Abaarso’s 1st 7th grade class.
Fortunately, the success of Abaarso and the opportunities the school provided for Somali youth, was not lost on the local population. Somalis who rightfully were weary of the foreign school were now supporters. The year that started with questions of survival closed with a sea of support.
With the distractions gone and Abaarso now gaining momentum in the Somali community, 2014 was a year the school could focus all efforts on efficiencies and development. Ava Ramberg took over the Assistant Headmaster position and led enormous financial and operational improvements throughout the school. In just one year she took financial sustainability from dream to reality. Even after Ava moved on she continued to lead and oversee Abaarso’s finances in her free time.
Ava’s on-the-ground gains were matched by a dramatic increase in the fundraising prospects, in no small part due to former student Fadumo Yusuf Abdilahi’s speeches in the US. Abaarso fundraising also received a major shot in the arm from the Desai family, who not only had become major donors, but who also led the effort to introduce the school to others. By the end of 2014, the American Schools and Hospitals Abroad (ASHA) division of USAID had agreed to fund the capital expansion Abaarso needed to house its new 7th and 8th grade. This would prove to be the first of several infrastructure grants funded by ASHA, helping put Abaarso’s facilities closer to par with those of international peers.
Beyond finances, Abaarso’s organizational improvements brought increased support to the school’s mission. Among them, a Somaliland Board of Trustees, consisting only of direct family members of existing students, was created and approved by the Ministry of Education. A US Advisory Board was formed to seek development opportunities for the students and school. Abaarso also became a “candidate school” for accreditation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.
In April 2015, Abdisamad Aden was accepted to Harvard University, and his success made international news, including an op-ed by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times and an invitation from Somaliland President Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud Silanyo to meet him before Abdisamad’s departure for the US. The following admissions cycle saw Nadira Abdilahi accepted to Yale University, likely making her the first girl ever to be accepted to an Ivy League University after having grown up and been educated in Somaliland.
By the end of 2015, Jonathan Starr officially stepped down as Headmaster, and now leads the US foundation that provides the majority of support for Abaarso. James Linville took over as Headmaster, with Abaarso in a position to continue to fortify its place as an integral part of Somaliland society.
As the new Headmaster, one of James’s primary tasks was to lead Abaarso through a rigorous accreditation process with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), which accredits historic institutions like Phillips Andover, Harvard, and MIT. The school spent over a year producing a self-study report that stretched several hundred pages long, with help from stakeholders across the organization. In December 2017, NEASC granted Abaarso accreditation, making it the only school in the Horn of Africa to hold NEASC accreditation, and only the 12th in all of Sub-Saharan Africa. This hard work culminated in an accreditation ceremony in January attended by dignitaries from around the country, and the NEASC’s flag was hung in the school auditorium in celebration.
Accreditation was also a recognition of the school’s significant expansion and modernization efforts. From 2014-2018, Abaarso’s student body grew by 30%, and it added dozens of new buildings to campus, including a new science center with three fully equipped laboratory rooms for biology, chemistry and physics. A second computer lab was added to campus along with two tablet labs, and programming became a mainstay in the Upper School computer science curriculum. In an effort to improve student health, gyms were added on campus and gym class became a regular part of the school’s afternoon schedule, and the kitchen and cafeterias were renovated and expanded. These initiatives, and many more, were funded by ASHA.
Perhaps the most important recent development is Abaarso’s first foreign university graduates returning to Somaliland. While recognizing Abaarso’s success, people often worried that our students would not want to return to Somaliland. After graduating from a host of prestigious universities abroad, Abaarso’s first class immediately began proving their commitment to developing their country. Seven of Abaarso’s first university graduates immediately returned to work in Somaliland, with the eighth in graduate school and expected to soon join them. This includes Mustafe Elmi, Najib Ahmed and Guuled Abdirahman who are all teaching at Abaarso. Nimco Ismail graduated from Oberlin College and returned to Somaliland as Abaarso’s Dean of Girls while helping to start an exciting new project, Barwaaqo University.
Barwaaqo University is a women’s college launched by Abaarso in the fall of 2017. Barwaaqo has started as a teachers’ college, and eventually will expand into different professional fields becoming the premier university in Somaliland. The University is led by former Abaarso Assistant Headmaster Ava Ramberg, who has been overseeing the development of the campus, curriculum, and school culture for the Barwaaqo women. With Ava and Nimco’s Abaarso experience guiding them, Barwaaqo has immediately taken on an educational culture that is driving its students to reach levels they previously deemed impossible. A pilot class of 25 future teachers set out this fall and will be there to welcome the next class of 50 students on their newly constructed campus in fall 2018. You can learn more about the new university at BarwaaqoUniversity.org.
These successes have led to a surge in media attention, most notably with a feature on 60 Minutes, hosted by Anderson Cooper, that aired in April 2017. Abaarso has also been featured in The New York Times, Morning Joe, Forbes, BBC World Service, The Boston Globe, Bloomberg News and many others. And in 2018, the school won the International Somali Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Somali Community, with alum Mubarik Mohamoud winning the award for Outstanding Educational Achievement.
The developments of the last few years have been undergirded by a strong administration. Working with James, Kenichi Nozaki (Assistant Headmaster, 2016-17), Katie Chlumska (Assistant Headmaster, 2017-present), James Greisler (Head of Lower School), and Marlee Burns (Head of Upper School) have shown extraordinary commitment to Abaarso and its students, giving the school stability while also leading major improvements in curriculum, discipline and student development.
Now approaching it’s 10-year anniversary, Abaarso is in its best position ever. Over a hundred Abaarso alums are continuing their education across the world, and this number is growing quickly. Demand to attend Abaarso is now 30x what the school can handle, a clear message that Somalis put a high value on quality education. With Abaarso thriving, our students attaining great educational outcomes, and the alumni poised to come home, we must now help our former students make a great positive impact on their homeland.