PAX Press on Location in Somaliland
PAX vice president poses on steps with exchange student alumni at the Abaarso School in Somaliland
Matt Stainback, PAX vice president of field operations, poses with former PAX Means Peace Scholars at their school, Abaarso School of Science and Technology. From left to right are Nasrin, Sagal, Salma, Matt, Sayidcali, Mamdouh, and Ahmed.

A visit to Abaarso School

As political science class gets underway, the teacher wants to quickly review last session’s concepts before moving forward. Likely in his mid-twenties, the Lebanese instructor can hardly finish asking each question before nearly every hand in the room shoots up. The students’ energy and eagerness to learn are only matched by his preparation and dynamism. Satisfied with the pupils’ grasp of the material thus far, he quickly transitions—but not before reminding the class that additional resources can be found on the internal server (which they hastily jot down in their notebooks).

We now enter a lightning round of sorts in which groups quickly and concisely update the class on their ongoing projects. (It’s not clear whether they were prepared to do this or are just tremendously tuned in.) The first is focusing in more precisely on a period of recent Somali history; the second is considering women’s roles in a variety of political movements…and we’re on to a Ted Talk video that introduces today’s main lesson…

The scene would be impressive in any high school in any corner of the world. But we’re not in any high school in any corner of the world. We’re in a classroom in a compound on a hill in the middle of the desert in an unrecognized breakaway province of Somalia, the world’s #1 failed state. Concrete walls with rolled barbed wire, watch towers, and armed soldiers delineate the edge of campus in every direction.

Big Challenges, Strong Role Models

This is the Abaarso School of Science and Technology near Hargeisa, Somaliland. Outside those walls, there is 75% unemployment for those under 30 and less than half of all children go to school. But inside these walls, students have dreams of becoming engineers, doctors, and politicians who will lead their society into a brighter future. The challenge confronting them is immense.

In 1991 following a civil war in which tens of thousands were killed, Somaliland declared independence from Somalia. Since then, Somaliland has built a working political system, government institutions, and police force. It even has its own currency. In spite of this, neither Somalia nor any other country recognizes Somaliland as an independent country. Already one of the poorest regions of the world, this lack of recognition presents an enormous challenge to the (non)country’s development, limiting its access to world markets.

Lack of recognition also poses significant challenges for PAX-Abaarso students. Without any official U.S. diplomatic representation in Somaliland, future PAX Means Peace Scholars are forced to make a bumpy 16-hour trek through the desert to the U.S. embassy in neighboring Djibouti and back. Students hoping to arrive this August will need to do so in early March (five months ahead of time) to ensure their visa is secured in time.

As unpleasant as that may sound, it is no doubt among the easiest obstacles for many Abaarso students. For some, it is a miracle that they are even in school. It’s not uncommon for families to have as many as 20 children and only be able to send one or two to school. Given serious challenges in the education system, it is also not uncommon for those one or two to not achieve basic proficiencies in reading, writing, or arithmetic. Most Abaarso students test into the English-immersive school in seventh grade with very limited English and years to make up in other areas.

In spite of all of this, there is serious reason to believe that these students will in fact achieve the lofty goals toward which they are so tenaciously working. While the first intake of ninth graders in 2009 no doubt required a determination and belief that bordered on lunacy (no Somalilander had attended an American university in 30 years), these students have alumni role models: Mubarik who recently graduated from MIT and Abdisamad who is finishing up his time at Harvard in addition to Shukri—the very first PAX Means Peace Scholar.

After her PAX year, Shukri was identified as a next-generation leader able to contribute to the social and economic progress of Africa and as such was awarded a scholarship through the MasterCard Foundation. Through the scholarship, she is currently attending Wellesley College in Massachusetts—one of the world’s top liberal arts institutions. And while, as the sole 2015/16 PAX Means Peace Scholar, Shukri blazed the way for future PAX-Abaarso students, the subsequent groups have been every bit as impressive. And that's we why find ourselves here on Abaarso's campus...

Finding PAX Community in the Desert

Not only are we meeting another courageous cohort of candidates for next year, we're also catching up with some old friends: six fantastic former PAX Means Peace Scholars to be exact. Sayidcali, Nasrin, Salma, Sagal, Mamdouh, and Ahmed are all back at Abaarso digesting their American experiences and readying themselves for great things. Like us, they were delighted to see some familiar faces from back in the States.

After a little rest and a splash of water on our faces (the journey from New York was about 40 hours door to door), we meet the alums in “the courtyard,” a beautifully designed gathering place just adjacent to the soccer field (rocky dirt area). We’re told that the courtyard is a new space—completely designed by a classmate whose vision of the concentric tiles, landscaping, and seating areas won her the right to implement her classroom project. As we walk over from our walled and barbed wired compound within the larger walled and barbed wired compound, it must be an hour or so after sunset. We can’t help but marvel at how brightly the stars light up the evening sky. We also can’t help but notice how significantly the temperature has dropped. Not properly dressed for a desert evening after being scorched in the afternoon sun, we eventually head into the library to catch up with the alums.

We chat about common friends in Indiana and Wisconsin and our initial impressions of the country. We also talk future plans and discuss their PAX year. What did they learn? How has it affected the trajectory of their lives? What advice might they have for us or other PAX students? As with anyone who has spent significant time in another culture, there are also plenty of funny stories to share. And we do—for hours.

It was the first of a few times that we would get together throughout our four-day stay. Each time, we were struck at how it could possibly be that after two days of travel to an unrecognized African outpost we had found that familiar feeling of PAX community.

With that and to the extent possible, in this very special issue of PAX Press, we are delighted to send back that feeling of PAX community to you, the true heart of the PAX community. We’ve prepared a number of brief alumni videos filled with their reflections, insights, updates, and anecdotes. Wherever you see a video thumbnail of one of them, just give it a click to be transported to the Horn of Africa with us. We hope you enjoy their inspiring stories and look forward to sharing much more about this special program with you in the future.

—The PAX Press team