Herding goats and camels in Somalia as a teenager, Mubarik Mohamoud had no idea he would go to college – let alone attend one of the world’s most prestigious universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Mohamoud is one of the few students who have come to the U.S. from Somaliland, an autonomous region of Somalia that is not yet internationally recognized as a sovereign state. Mohamoud grew up in a poor village on the border of Kenya and Somalia. Against the odds, he attended a public school until 9th grade – when he was accepted to Abaarso School of Science and Technology, an educational institution founded by ex-hedge fund manager Jonathan Starr and funded, in part, by Wall Street donors.
Born and raised in Worcester, Mass., Starr started his career at Fidelity Investments and then founded his own hedge fund, Flagg Street Capital, in 2004. Four years later, he visited Somaliland, his aunt’s husband’s home country, and decided to found a school where the country’s top students could prepare to attend international universities, mostly in the U.S.. Starr says he wanted to give young minds like Mohamoud the opportunity to get a well-rounded education in English, then go back and build their country back up after all the destruction it’s faced after a three-year long civil war that ended in 1991.
“When the next Mubarik comes around, he doesn’t have to work for Google,” Starr says. “He can work for Mubarik.” Starr’s ultimate goal is a self-sustaining Somaliland.
Abaarso takes its name from the village where it’s located; “abaar” also means “drought” in Somali. Abaarso is like no other school in Somaliland: once accepted, Somali students pay as much (or as little) as they can afford of the annual $1,800 tuition. The rest is covered by Starr and his Wall Street connections.
“I dare you to come meet these kids and not think that it is worth investing in them,” Starr says. Abaarso’s supporters include USAID, as well as big Wall Street firms like JP Morgan Chase, Credit Suisse, Bank of America, billionaire David Einhorn’s GreenLight Capital hedge fund, and executives from Goldman Sachs and from other hedge funds. Since 2009 the school has raised a little over $3 million, and in Somaliland, where GDP per capita is $347, that pays the bills for around 210 students in grades 7 to 12. Starr, however, wants to reach out to donors outside of Wall Street. He is preparing to launch a women-only teacher’s college in Somaliland this fall and hopes the project will morph into an all-encompassing university for women.
Each year, Abaarso School sends a few students to finish high school in the U.S. and around a dozen students to attend American universities, where the students have been able to obtain scholarships. But since February, when President Trump issued an executive order that seeks to ban travel from certain countries – including Somalia, Abaarso’s students have been more uncertain about a future in the U.S.. Somaliland, which is not recognized by the U.S. as a sovereign state, was included in the ban as well.
Trump’s executive order has been blocked by two federal appeals courts since it was signed in February. Most recently, on June 12, it was rejected by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco. The President wants the Supreme Court to review the hold on the ban before the end of June. Amid all the legal back and forth, the uncertainty has changed some Abaarso students’ plans.
Some of the students have scholarships that pay for their flight back to Somaliland for their summer break, but Starr says that this summer, no one is going home for fear of not being allowed back. Fahima Ali, who just got into Columbia University after attending Abaarso for two years (she spent the last two years of high school in upstate New York), is not seeing her parents this summer. “I really cried a lot,” Ali says, remembering the day she heard about the executive order, “because it wasn’t even only for me, it was for my friends, and for Shukri who got into Wellesley.”
Current Abaarso students who have been accepted to schools in the U.S. are now preparing for the worst case scenario. Two students – one accepted to Wellesley College and the other to Phillips Academy, a prestigious boarding school in Andover, Mass., on full scholarship – are hoping to make it through the visa process without any trouble from the looming ban.
In the future, the students might even be forced to look elsewhere. Since the announcement of the executive order in February, international schools in India, Bosnia and Canada have stepped forward and announced scholarships for Abaarso students who could be affected in case the ban is implemented.
Even without President Trump’s executive order, these students and their families face tough constraints. “They’re already being vetted really hard,” Starr says. Most of the parents cannot come see their kids in the U.S. due to both a lack of funds and visa issues.
“What people don’t understand is that the embassies were not handing out visas in the first place,” Starr claims. Of the six countries included in the travel ban, Somalia had the highest refusal rate for tourist visas in the fiscal year 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs. For every 100 Somalis who apply, only about 36 get a visa.
In early June, Mohamoud graduated from MIT with a degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke to MIT’s graduating class, challenging them to think big. “When you work towards something greater than yourself, you find meaning, you find purpose,” Cook said. “So the question I hope you will carry forward from here is: ‘How will you serve humanity?’”
Mohamoud will soon start a six-month internship at Vanu, a Massachusetts software engineering company. Then he will return to MIT to get a master’s degree in computer science. “At the end of the day, I want to go back as soon as possible,” the young graduate adds. Four former Abaarso students who are graduating this year from various U.S. universities are already going back to Abaarso to teach.
And ultimately, it is a matter of getting a chance at better opportunities, according to Starr. If America is not an option, he says, and Cairo is, then the Abaarso students will go to Cairo to study.
The students are optimistic, Fahima Ali says, the Abaarso student headed to Columbia University: “No matter what, the good things about this country and about the people who live in this country outweigh the bad things.”