Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia, is an impoverished region that isn’t officially recognized as a distinct country. Children born there are given very little opportunity, but Jonathan Starr is trying to change that. Starr, a former hedge fund manager, talks about his journey from Wall Street money manager to Somaliland school runner and how he and his school and changing lives where it matters most.
- Jonathan Starr, author and former hedge fund manager who opened the Abaarso School in Somaliland
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Education in Somaliland
Marty Peterson: You’ve heard it said a thousand times that knowledge is power. And, while education is sometimes taken for granted in America, it’s a precious commodity around the globe in places like Somaliland, a breakaway country from Somalia. Jonathan Starr, author of the book It Takes a School, describes the region as the world’s number one failed state. And giving that state the knowledge, and power, it so desperately needs was a mantle Starr took on himself…
Jonathan Starr: I’m an American who worked in finance. I actually started and ran my own private investment firm. When I was 32 I closed that down and moved to Somaliland, which is a break away country that’s unrecognized as independent, but operates independently within Somalia, and started this school that my client list would really develop the future leaders of the country of that country, Somaliland, who would then provide opportunities to the wider population.
Peterson: Though his decision to shutter the investment firm he had opened himself was a shock to many, it wasn’t rash. Somaliland may not be well known to most Americans, but Starr has known about it for the majority of his life.
Starr: My father’s sister married a Somali well before I was born and they had my cousins. When my parents got divorced my mom and her in-laws they didn’t get divorced, they still stayed close, so we used to spend lots of holidays with my Somali cousins and my Somali uncle. I would hear about his home country. He was talking about Somaliland which broke away from Somalia in 1991, I’d been hearing about it for a long time, and how this is a place that’s held back because it’s considered part of Somalia. So that was my connection. When I wanted to do something very different and try my hand at something that I thought would both allow me to grow as a person, but also be a contribution the world, the first place I looked was to my uncle. When can we go see your country? When can we go look and find opportunity there?
Peterson: And once Starr visited Somaliland, he says it became very clear to him that it was the right place for him to make a difference.
Starr: Somaliland broke away from Somalia in ’91 and it came to peace. The people there said let’s put the guns down. Let’s be peaceful, while the rest of the country of Somalia was unable to and still to this day unfortunately struggles with constant violence. Somaliland is a peaceful place where the people, especially when you’re in the capital of Somaliland which is Hargeisa, the people are incredibly patriotic to Somaliland. At the same time the roads are not paved and there’s trash everywhere. The education system is basically a little bit above broken. So it’s not really super functioning, but you have a people there who want it to be functioning and who are at peace with each other. So that seemed to me a real opportunity to try to create something in a place that would be safer and more stable but still needing.
Peterson: So, in an effort to fill one need he found particularly important, Starr built a school. Soon enough, he was welcoming his first class of students into the doors of the Abaarso (uh-bar-so) School.
Starr: We have this first group of ninth graders and I realized very early on that my main job is to show them that it is worth it to invest in their education. They came to basically be like a family who cared about each other, who pushed each other and when the students started to see success, they realized wow, I’m really doing well, I’m learning so much more here than I have learned anywhere before, they started to value their education and value the school.
Peterson: Though he says the students bought into the school and its goals relatively quickly, he and his staff still ran into trouble with many of the locals.
Starr: We came up against a lot of real challenges in society where people started attacking us. You’re corrupting the youth; you’re corrupting the religion. It‘s all nonsense. People had ulterior motives and they were using these things they thought could rile up a society who wasn’t used to foreigners. Attack the foreigners for being foreigners as opposed to on merits. When that happened it pushed the students and faculty even closer together. We were now kind of war buddies. We were fighting for the survival of this school. I would have students come to me and say, no one should have to put up with what you’re putting up with. Please go home just because I can’t watch my people doing this to you. They loved us, they cared about us. But we didn’t go home, and we fought through with them.
Peterson: One of those many students at the school that Starr feels a close connection to is a boy named Mubarak…
Starr: The story of Mubarak who’s this boy who grew up a nomad following goats around. He thought a car was an animal as a child. He’d never seen any technology before, so how would he know that a car is actually something humans could have built? He was our first to go away for school. He did great, opened doors for others. Mubarak then got into MIT. He took his first computer science class there and he told me, it says intro, but it doesn’t feel like an intro course to me. I don’t blame him; I’m assuming the kid next to him was a hacker and a different kid sold an app to Google. This is MIT and Mubarak just knew how to turn a computer on. He’s graduating this year with a degree in electrical engineering and computer science. He actually has worked on autonomous vehicles; from not knowing a car wasn’t an animal to working on autonomous vehicles is pretty incredible. And now you’re talking about a kid who obviously this is an enormous talent level and the future with an investment in that kid, there‘s just no feeling. He could be an incredible change maker in society. Mubarak’s just one, but he is certainly an exceptional one.
Peterson: With students from largely uneducated, and in many cases, impoverished backgrounds, Starr says the staff at Abaarso had their work cut out for them at every turn.
Starr: Take every reason that anyone says is an excuse for why an American school fails and we’ve had it, except we had more. We had one family where the father has 29 children. I challenge to find too many American schools with bigger families than that. So we have these enormous families, these uneducated parents, and yet we succeeded, and why? Because we inspired the kids day after day it’s worth it to invest in your education. It’s worth it to wake up in the morning and focus in each of your classes and do your work and not take short cuts and don’t cheat. And then do community service to help others. And then when you play sports do your best and to learn more. We inspired them it’s worth it.
Peterson: In all, Starr says the success his students like Mubarak have had in the nine years since Abaarso opened its doors has been astounding.
Starr: Right now, we have over 50 kids in the U.S. over 80 around the world who are studying. We’ve only gotten better as a school. So the pipeline of students who could end up being at Ivy League universities and going to great schools and then going back and fixing their country is tremendous.
Peterson: But Starr says he worries that travel bans, such as those being proposed and signed by President Trump, could do accidental damage to that pipeline.
Starr: How the administration has tried to do this executive order will put an end to what would be an educational revolution in the breakaway part of the world’s number one failed state. That just cannot have been the intention when they put this in place. I’m hopeful that listeners can see that these kids are good for security in America and good for America and that they’ll support them and convince the administration that we need schools like this and we need kids like Mubarak. I would like to think that when the administration put forward this Somalia, these are banned, they don’t even know our school exists or realized, we’re not talking about blocking terrorists here, we’re talking about blocking a kid who got into Harvard from attending. A kid who could be the future president and an ethical president of their country, that’s not good for American security. It’s good for American security to have these kids come to America, get the education we can provide and go back and create opportunities for the others in their country.
Peterson: Despite his concerns and the blowback he’s received along his journey, Starr says he has no regrets about his decision to trade in life as a hedge fund manager for the role of schoolmaster in Somaliland.
Starr: I have been able to gain satisfaction and a whole other family who I love and who loves me, that I never could have had. I spent year after year where everyday I’d wake up knowing, and I still feel this way, everyday I wake up knowing, alright, I have things to do that I really care about because I’m going to make people I care about have a better life, have a better future, have more opportunities. That is a very special way to be able to live, to feel like everyday you can actually do something special and contribute. And they’re not many jobs that feel that way. I look at it and I see people who are in the finance world in other parts of the world, and I think to myself why do you want to get up everyday and do that? From my perspective I’ve had the best job. It hasn’t been easy and I’ve put up with some really rough things, but it’s been wonderful.
Peterson: To learn more about Jonathan Starr or the Abaarso School, you can find his book It Takes a School, in stores or online now. For more information about all of our guests, visit viewpointsonline.net. Our show is written and produced by Evan Rook. Our executive producer is Reed Pence. Our production director is Sean Waldron. I’m Marty Peterson.