Somalia is a poor Muslim country, where agriculture provides a meager existence in its arid climate, and people live on less than $2.00 a day. The country has one of the lowest primary-school enrollment rates in Africa with less than 25% of the children participating, of which one-third are female students. Somaliland has fared better than the rest of Somalia, with 44 percent of the children receiving an education.
Ms. Hodan Guled, the founder of the Somali and American Fund for Education (SAFE) noted, “With basic reading skills, a child has the opportunity to be lifted out of poverty.” SAFE has been building schools in Somaliland, the autonomous northern state, which has not seen the violence that has devastated the rest of Somalia. The southern region has been destabilized by al-Shabaab Islamists since 2006.
Somaliland has a population of 3.5 million, with an elected government that has proven it can govern justly, respects human rights, and the rule of law. Attacks in the south by al-Shabaab have not abated, even with the infusion of UN AMISOM Peacekeeping troops that have been there since 2011, to underpin the Mogadishu government.
In March 2013, I went to Hargeisa the capital of Somaliland, to visit two school projects that the Price Family Foundation was undertaking with SAFE. Being the rainy season traveling over the desert roads was treacherous. In the village of Alleybaday four classrooms were built at the Harcadaad Primary School. Student classes were divided into morning and afternoon sessions for 78 boys and 42 girls, ranging from grades one through four–with four teachers. Just months earlier classes were held under a tree. We then traveled across a similar rugged terrain to the village of Faraweyne, some 44 miles into the desert. There two classrooms were built at the Maraaga Primary School, to accommodate 50 boys and 30 girls in split sessions–with two teachers.
Hodan arranged for a visit to the new Abaarso School of Science and Technology, located near the outskirts of Hargeisa, in which SAFE had helped with student housing. Mr. Jonathan Starr, an American, founded the school in 2009, to prepare students for higher education opportunities in the U.S. and elsewhere. He brought fifteen teachers from the U.S. and Canada, to focus on math and science.
The initial classes at Abaarso had 80 boys and 40 girls, for the four year program. In the first graduating class of 2013, a young man named Mubarik, who grew up in a refugee camp, received a scholarship to Massachusetts Institute of Technology; a young girl named Nadira received a scholarship to Oberlin College in Ohio; four other students also received scholarships to U.S. colleges. Mr. Starr in a recent email noted, that with the June 2014 graduating class there are now over thirty students in the United States and seventeen elsewhere around the world. Mr. Starr proudly noted that his investment in the Abaarso School since inception was about $250,000, for which his students received over $2.5 million in scholarships so far.
In 2014 in conjunction with SAFE, the Price Family Foundation funded the construction of six classrooms at three schools, to accommodate 500 more students. SAFE noted “that the classrooms will benefit villages where children would otherwise not have a chance to receive an education.” The Xeedho Primary School just opened with two classrooms for 150 students, grades one through eight; the Al Kheyr Primary School added two classrooms for 160 students. At the Farah High School–which serves four primary and middle schools—we added two classrooms to accommodate 80 students. These classrooms will also be used for adult education and vocational training in the evenings.
The southern part of Somalia has seen civil conflict and destabilization for almost 24 years. This has led to the disintegration of the education system, with almost ninety percent of the schools damaged or destroyed. Two generations of Somali children have missed the opportunity to attend school. In Somaliland individual communities have reached out to NGO organizations such as SAFE to help build school classrooms. SAFE selects villages which have shown that they can manage their education program. Their goal is to empower these communities to continue investing in the education needs of their children.
In the southern town of Dhobley, Mr. Adan Abdi a school teacher, worries that the students show too little interest in education and are more interested in playing war. A UNICEF report noted, “An entire generation of children has grown up knowing only conflict and fighting [and] possibly thousands of children have been trained in combat. We need to make sure that this generation receives quality basic education. This will stop them being sucked into the continuing violence and they will then be able to make a positive and lasting contribution to the future of Somalia.”
If this generation of Somali children is to find hope for the future, there needs to be an emphasis on education. Sustainable economic development will need to follow for Somalia to participate in the global economy. Without education the achievements for success will not happen. With every educated student comes the potential for a leader of tomorrow. The struggle to educate children in Somalia has brought foundations like ours to give Somali children that opportunity–to help Somalia ultimately achieve prosperity and peace.
The United States, on a larger scale, can be the catalyst to support education throughout Somalia by building classrooms—the link to winning the war against the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Shabaab terrorist group, that continue to recruit young children into their ranks daily–and attacks Western interests. Military action alone against these insurgents will not defeat the radical Islamist movement–nor lead to peace. If the United States wants to make a lasting difference in Somalia, an investment in education is a good place to start.