Kicking it with the Abaarso Boys
PAX exchange student from the Abaarso School in Somaliland on his first day in the United States
After a long journey from East Africa, Ahmed can't help but smile big!

After answering U.S. Customs and Border Protection's questions for two hours, PAX Means Peace Scholars Ahmed (the “h” sounds like a throat-clearing “k”) and Mamdouh arrived on the campus of Adelphi University where the PAX Press team and more questions awaited. The boys represent two-fifths of the third cohort of the PAX-funded scholarship—a partnership with the Abaarso School of Science and Technology in Somaliland. 

From the Long Island campus, Mamdouh, soft spoken and sincere, admitted that he had been nervous about visas, immigration, and the like. Regarding the encounter with immigration officials earlier that day, he offers, “That was fine, because those officers were really caring about their country.” If he was at all shaken by it, he certainly didn’t show it now. We first found the basketball-loving young man using a soccer ball to practice his layups over the branch of a young honey locust tree.

In observing how the Somalilanders reacted to their new environment, it was difficult to pin down what they were most excited about. They were both indeed on the hunt for a basketball hoop (we’re certain they’ll be more than satiated in the Hoosier State, where they’re both heading), but it may have been the tree itself with which Mamdouh was most impressed. Asked to describe America in one word, the young man—who had until a few hours ago mostly known semi-desert terrain—looked around the lush and well-manicured campus and responded, “Green.”

Meanwhile, Ahmed, wearing a difficult-to describe hat (something between a safari hat and Gilligan’s sailor cap…presumably having more to do with the fashion-exploring years of young adulthood than native traditions) was pondering something entirely different. Looking down a path between the dormitories and across the adjacent parking lot, he wondered if the street that was 300 or so yards off was part of the campus.

“No, why?” The answer came.

“There is no wall around the school,” he observed.

Abaarso’s entire compound is surrounded by a 12-foot wall with barbed wire, watchtowers, and armed guards. Beyond the walls? In the words of Abaarso founder Jonathan Starr, “Absolutely nothing, anywhere you look.”

If the lush, open, and affluent area of the campus contrasted their previous experiences, they were certainly in for more surprises on their second day in the United States: a daylong tour of a New York City in full bustle. Still wide-eyed after the tour, Mamdouh gushed about his favorite part, “When we rode a boat and watched all of the different, unique buildings.” Indeed, he had noted that he was looking forward to the architecture the day before. For Ahmed, it was Times Square that had most captured his imagination.

If neon-lit commercial districts and boat rides on the East River were mind-bogglingly different than what the young men were used to, they seemed rather at home in the classroom on their third day. Mamdouh was kind enough to volunteer for the much-lauded position of “crosser offer.” (When a lesson on the afternoon’s agenda is completed, the honored student—armed with a red marker—“crosses it off” the whiteboard.)

With eight or nine items on the agenda, the recurring (and typically rhetorical) question posed by the proctor after each lesson (“What do you think, Mamdouh? Are we all set on the topic of culture shock?”) is usually good for a laugh or two as the eager student, sensing free time in his near future but at the same time not wanting to debase the esteemed office of “crosser offer” feigns a moment of consideration before authoritatively striking the topic from the list. You can imagine the surprise when the young Somalilander responded, “Hmmm, we didn’t talk much about the food.”

In addition to meeting new people, Mamdouh notes that a big part of the reason he applied to be a PAX Means Peace Scholar is for the education: “American teachers have a lot of knowledge about the subjects they are teaching.” Ahmed’s response to the same question is part adventure, part pragmatism. He wants to “see a different view of life” and also gain experience that will allow him to “change something in my life and in other people’s lives.”

If their answers are slightly different, their demeanors are plainly so. While Mamdouh cuts a thoughtful and introspective figure in the front of the class, toward the back of the room, Ahmed seems to be armed with the confidence of a young man who has set and met difficult goals in the past and feels he can do the same when it comes to the daunting proposition of 10-months in a foreign country, apart from his family and friends. Snagging the “conversation ball” during an exercise, he reads the prompt on the panel behind his left thumb (“Who is my favorite American actor?”), coolly responds “Denzel,” and tosses the ball back to the teacher.

When asked how he feels about all of the changes and challenges ahead, Ahmed offers a wide smile, “I’m so excited to be part of this. It feels like I am starting a new chapter for my life!” We wish Ahmed and Mamdouh the very best of luck on their new chapters and thank them for taking the time to speak with us.

Look for much more this year—not only from the Abaarso boys but also from their female classmates Nasrin, Sagal, and Salma. As the third year of the PAX Means Peace Scholars program gets underway, we’re the ones who feel so “excited to be part of this!

—The PAX Press Editorial Team