HARGEISA, SOMALILAND - A school on the outskirts of Hargeisa has become a draw for high-achievers from around Somaliland as well as a launching pad, sending these students on to some of the most prestigious schools around the world.
Mustapha Mohamed Ibrahim, a recent graduate of the Abaarso School of Science and Technology outside Hargeisa, helps tutor younger classmates in math problems they might encounter on the ACT, an American college entrance exam.
"I love this place, I love the people, I love the students," Ibrahim said.
Abaarso is an elite school that teaches students from seventh through 12th grades.
The school is quite competitive -- prospective seventh-graders must take an entrance exam. Nearly 600 students competed for the 50 seats for the grade. This year, 1,000 are expected to take the test.
The school's rigorous curriculum focuses on math, science and technology, and helps the students become conversant in English. The school costs $1,800 a year for those with Somali and Somaliland passports; more for those with other citizenship.
School headmaster James Linville said 80 students are studying at or have been accepted to universities and secondary schools throughout the world, with nearly all of them on full scholarship.
"It’s incredibly competitive to get scholarships as international students to these schools, and not only that, but it’s been a very long time since Somali-educated and Somali-raised students were able to get these scholarships," Linville said.
"So actually, when our first students got scholarships three years ago, they were the first in over a generation to be given scholarships to study in the U.S.," he added.
Currently there are 210 students at the school.
Educational opportunities were limited for Somalilanders caught up in civil war from 1988 to 1991, and then stymied by lack of funds and political turmoil.
Ibrahim, who was recently accepted to New York’s University of Rochester with a full scholarship, said he’s happy for opportunities that were beyond his parents’ reach.
“For a kid whose parents never graduated from middle school, it is a very, very big deal for getting accepted into universities in the States," he said.
Forty Abaarso alumni are in the United States, studying at schools such as Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Georgetown University, Amherst College and Carnegie Mellon University.
Once abroad, the students are able to keep up with their international counterparts, Linville said.
Abaarso students have a grade point average of 3.2 in college and prep school, and have scored “exceptionally” high on the SAT, another American college entrance exam," he said, adding that is noteworthy.
"Especially considering that at the time they took the SAT, they’ve been taking classes in English for three years. So, imagine sending an American kid to another country, asking them to take the national exam in three years and then scoring in the 80th or 90th percentile," he said.
The Abaarso school was started by Jonathan Starr, an American financier who took a trip to his uncle’s native Somaliland in 2008 and decided to open a school there, using $500,000 of his own money to do so.
Since Abaarso opened in 2009, there have been three graduating classes of about 35 students each.
The students say their hope is that they will bring their knowledge home to improve their country.