In Somalia each day dozens of children twelve years and older are recruited into the ranks of al-Shabaab, the local terrorist organization. Killing an Islamist leader or two will not change the attacks they incur at home, in neighboring countries, and against Western interests. Until recently the United States had all but given up on this country of nine million Muslims. The sporadic attacks against the al-Qaeda linked leaders in the southern part of the country has not brought peace to this devastated country, where thousands have died, and almost two million people have been displaced.
Somalia with its large number of young children garners only an educated society of 25 percent. The northern autonomous state of Somaliland fares better with 44 percent receiving an education. Without an education most opportunities are out of reach for the Somali children. Devastated for years by cycles of drought, famine and conflict, most Somalis subsist on less than $2 a day. Somalia has one of the lowest school enrollment rates in Africa, with only one-third of girls attending school. “With basic reading skills, a child has the opportunity to be lifted out of poverty” noted Ms. Hodan Guled, the founder of the Somali and American Fund for Education (SAFE), which spearheads classroom construction.
In my March 2013 meeting with Somaliland’s Minister of Education Mrs. Zamzam Abdi Adan, she noted it is the government’s desire to “protect human rights; freedom and dignity translates in our education sector into fundamental goals of success in education for all, irrespective of background, gender or disability…”
A school teacher in the conflicted southern part of Somalia noted that some of his students show little interest in education, being more interested in playing war. A UNICEF report stated that an entire generation of children has grown up knowing only conflict and fighting. Thousands of children have been trained for combat by the Islamists. There is a great need for this generation to receive a quality education to be able to make a positive and lasting contribution to the future of Somalia.
If the U.S. wants to minimize the influence of radical imams that are indoctrinating young boys to become terrorists, more emphasis will need to be placed on helping to provide secular education in Somalia. To date such an initiative has taken the back seat to surgically killing al-Shabaab leaders. This is a short sighted and expensive undertaking in which more innocent lives will be lost, caught in the cross-fire.
In 2012, in conjunction with SAFE the Price Family Foundation funded the building of four classrooms in two villages near Hargeisa, Somaliland. Untouched by the violence that has plagued the rest of this Horn of Africa nation, Somaliland with a population of 3.5 million people has proven it can govern justly, respect human rights and rule of law. We wanted to help make a difference—no matter how small.
A rain-soaked twenty mile rutty trail led to the isolated village of Alleybaday, where two classrooms were built at the Harcadaad Primary School. This allowed 78 boys and 42 girls, in grades one through four, to attend classes in split sessions. Girls who were expected to undertake family chores, were given cans of cooking oil for attending school. In the village of Faraweyne two classrooms were built at the Maraaga Primary School, where 50 boys and 30 girls attend classes in split sessions.
In these outlying villages, where families live a nomadic life, moving regularly to new areas for water and vegetation for their animals, boarding facilities would be helpful to allow children to stay behind to attend classes regularly.
We visited the Abaarso High School, founded by Jonathan Starr an American entrepreneur, which specializes in science and technology, and prepares students for higher education opportunities. The school’s mission is to help improve young Somali children’s lives. Most of the students come from poverty conditions, having a limited ability to pay for such an education. They are asked to contribute only what they could afford. Having spent a sizable amount of his net worth, Mr. Starr depends on outside funding for the school’s operation. With the need of a dormitory for girls, SAFE has funded this addition.
Now in the school’s fourth year of operation there were 80 boys and 40 girls attending classes. I was introduced to a young boy named Mubarik who grew up in a refugee camp, and was recently accepted to Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a full scholarship. Nadira, a young girl from a nearby village was accepted to Oberlin College on a full scholarship. Four other students from the first graduating class also received scholarships to American colleges. Without Mr. Starr’s tenacity such an opportunity would not have been possible for these students.
With education being a prime focus of our Foundation, in 2014 we plan to fund the construction of six more classrooms to accommodate 500 students in three villages. SAFE noted that the classrooms will benefit villages where children would otherwise not have a chance to receive an education. The Xeedho Primary School will receive two classrooms for 150 students, grades one to eight. The Al Kheyr Primary School will receive two classrooms for 160 students. The Farah High School, which serves four primary and middle schools, will receive two classrooms for 60 additional students. The same classrooms will be used for adult education and vocational training in the evenings.
Civil conflict over the past two decades, and lack of a functioning government in the southern part of Somalia, has led to the disintegration of the education system. With almost ninety percent of the schools being damaged or destroyed, two generations of Somali children have missed the opportunity to attend school. Somalia has one of the lowest primary school enrollment rates in the world. The more stable autonomous state of Somaliland has fared better, with the ministry of education’s focus on education. Individual communities have taken the initiative to reach out to organizations such as SAFE, to help build schools and classrooms. SAFE has selected communities which have shown they can manage their education programs. The goal is to help empower these communities to continue to invest in the education needs of their children.
If this generation of Somali children is to find hope for a future, there needs to be more emphasis placed on education. Sustainable development will need to follow, so that Somalia can participate in the global economy. Without basic education job opportunities will be limited, and the eradication of poverty will be difficult–since poverty’s companion is hopelessness.
The United States needs to help Somalia build the thousands of classrooms required–the catalyst to winning the war against the al-Qaeda linked al-Shabaab terrorists, that continue to recruit young children into their ranks daily. Military action alone against the Islamist insurgents will not end terrorism, nor lead to peace. If the United States wants to make a lasting difference in Somalia, affecting the lives of the Somali children, an investment in education would be a good start.