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From Somaliland to Harvard - The New York Times

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SundayReview

OP-ED COLUMNIST

SEPT. 12, 2015

Nicholas Kristof

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. OF the millions of young men and women settling into
college dorms this month, one of the most unlikely is Abdisamad Adan, a 21-year-old
beginning his freshman year at Harvard. Some of his 18 siblings are illiterate and
never went even to first grade, and he was raised without electricity or indoor
plumbing by an illiterate grandmother in a country that doesnt officially exist.
Yet he excelled as he studied by candlelight, and hes probably the only person
in Harvard Yard who knows how to milk a camel.
Abdisamad is the first undergraduate the Harvard admissions office remembers
from Somalia or its parts, at least in the last 30 years of institutional memory. He is
from Somaliland, a breakaway republic that isnt recognized by any other country
(and so doesnt have a United States embassy to grant him a visa, but thats another
story).
Yet Abdisamad brims with talent and intelligence. Hes a reminder of the
fundamental aphorism of our age: Talent is universal, but opportunity is not.
If not for a fluke, Abdisamad acknowledges, he might have joined friends to
become part of the tide of migrants making a precarious journey by sea to Europe.
How he came instead to Harvard is a tribute to his hard work and intellect, but also
to luck, and to an American hedge fund tycoon who, bored by finance, moved to
Somaliland and set up a school for brilliant kids who otherwise wouldnt have a

9/12/2015 7:38 PM

From Somaliland to Harvard - The New York Times

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http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/13/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-fr...

chance.
The financier, Jonathan Starr, had an aunt who married a man from
Somaliland, and he was charmed by stories about its deserts and nomads. So in
2008, after running his own hedge fund and burning out, Starr took a trip to
Somaliland.
His friends thought he was nuts for what happened next: Starr founded an
English-language boarding school for the brightest boys and girls from across
Somaliland. Called the Abaarso School of Science and Technology, it uses American
teachers (paid a pittance) who are willing to work in a country that the State
Department recommends avoiding for security reasons. The school is surrounded by
a high wall and has armed guards to foil Shabab rebels, and it has an American
sensibility: There is a girls basketball team, which is so unusual in Somaliland that
the team members have almost no one to play against.
This campus is where Abdisamad blossomed.
He says his parents divorced before he was born, so his grandmother raised
him. He spent an average of two hours a day fetching water and had no one pushing
him at home, but still performed superbly at a local primary school. In national
eighth grade exams, he scored second in the entire country.
The problem was that while primary school tuition had been $1 a month, a good
high school would be at least $40 a month. His grandmother couldnt afford that,
and in any case she didnt really see why he needed high school. No one in his family
had ever graduated from high school.
But then Abdisamad was accepted at Abaarso, which is flexible about tuition: If
a promising student cant pay, Starr looks the other way. So Abdisamad began ninth
grade at Abaarso, struggling at first because classes were in English, which he didnt
speak. And Abdisamads grandmother was displeased that he was spending his time
in the classroom rather than helping the family.
She was definitely not happy in the beginning, Abdisamad remembered. She
asked me, Are you starting to hate us? Are you falling in love with Americans?

9/12/2015 7:38 PM

From Somaliland to Harvard - The New York Times

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http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/13/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-fr...

He quickly learned English, however, and after three years won a scholarship to
study at the Masters School, a college prep school, in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. The year in
Dobbs Ferry was an adventure it took a while for Abdisamad to figure out vending
machines but he thrived and decided to apply to Harvard.
His admission to Harvard was treated as a national cause for celebration.
Somalilands president invited him for a meeting, and Abdisamad became a local
hero. His grandmother hadnt heard of Harvard but came to be proud of her
grandson and appreciate that education had its uses.
On arrival at Harvard, Abdisamad found himself with a single room that was
about as big as the room he had previously shared with up to five other students. He
didnt have sheets, but another student lent him some. His major problem was how
to activate his new debit card: I need a phone to activate it, he explained, and I
dont have a phone.
Then there was his orientation at Harvard. They were teaching us things that
people dont talk about back at home. Sexual harassment. Condoms. Consent, he
recalled, and then raised his eyebrows. It was all very interesting.
Abdisamad plans to return to Somaliland and work with young people, and then
perhaps pursue a career in politics; he hints that hed like to be president some day.
Whats indisputable is that access to a good school transformed Abdisamads
life. Six of his brothers and sisters are getting no education at all, and some of those
migrants youve been seeing on television drowning in their desperate struggle to get
to Europe are from Somaliland.
One reason Somalia and its former parts have struggled for decades is lack of
education, particularly for girls: Illiteracy correlates to huge families, to extremism,
to violence and civil warfare. World leaders will be gathering this month at the
United Nations to review the status of development goals, including one that by now
all children would be able to complete primary school, and to approve new ones.
There has indeed been enormous progress in global education, yet even today some
59 million children around the globe arent enrolled even in elementary school (and
tens of millions more are enrolled but learn nothing).

9/12/2015 7:38 PM

From Somaliland to Harvard - The New York Times

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/13/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-fr...

Thats the context in which Starrs school and Abdisamads success should
offer inspiration. And its not just Abdisamad. The Abaarso School has an
astonishing 26 other alumni at U.S. universities, including M.I.T., George
Washington University, Grinnell, Oberlin, Holy Cross and Amherst.
There arent many high schools in the world with 45 students in a grade that are
so successful in getting alumni into top colleges, let alone one where students speak
English as a foreign language and often grew up in poverty. The Abaarso student at
M.I.T., Mubarik Mohamoud, a junior studying electrical engineering, grew up as a
nomadic herder raising camels, goats and sheep in an area with no schools; he began
his education at a madrasa.
Being smart is universal, says Mubarik. Its just that resources are not
dispersed.
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the Opinion Today newsletter.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on September 13, 2015, on page SR1 of the New York edition
with the headline: From Somaliland to Harvard.

2015 The New York Times Company

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