Filming the future

If President James Madison’s belief in the power of education is true, then a new school in Somalia could change a nation. Recently we learned from JMU alumnus James Irwin (’06) about filmmakers from JMU and U.Va. who are documenting Somalia’s most successful educational venture in decades. It’s an important story to share…..

Juweeriya, a 7th grade student, was the first student from Abaarso village to enroll at The Abaarso School of Science and Technology, which draws students from all over Somalia.

Juweeriya, a 7th grade student, was the first student from Abaarso village to enroll at The Abaarso School of Science and Technology, which draws students from all over Somalia.

Can one school change the future of a country?

By James Irwin (’06)

A boarding school in the world’s No. 1 failed state is sending the first wave of Somali students to American colleges in three decades. And a group of filmmakers from James Madison University and the University of Virginia are making sure the world knows about it.

The Abaarso School of Science and Technology, an intermediate and secondary academy in northwest Somalia, sent its first students to study at American colleges in 2013. The efforts of the school, launched by former hedge fund founder Jonathan Starr, is the subject of the upcoming documentary, Abaarso (working title), produced by U.Va. alumnus Harry Lee and JMU graduates Ben Powell (’05) and Kate Griendling (’08).

The three filmmakers, all Northern Virginia natives, will travel to Somalia this month to complete the filming of the project. They hope to release the documentary in 2016. (You can follow their blog here: )

“These students will be the first highly educated cohort in Somalia in 30-something years,” Lee said. “It feels like we have this rare opportunity to document a turning point for a country.”

Abaarso fundeer Jonathan Starr leads the school's annual field day competition

Abaarso founder Jonathan Starr leads the school’s annual field day competition

Starr, the subject of numerous articles, including a 2011 feature in Emory University magazine, closed his quarter-billion dollar hedge fund in 2009 and moved to Somalia to open the school. Decades of civil unrest, war and terrorism have crippled the country. It is a breeding ground for at-risk youth. Somalia has been the world’s No. 1 failed state since 2008, according to The Fund for Peace’s Failed States Index.

“There is a complete lack of healthcare, functioning system of governance and infrastructure,” said Lee, who spent three years on staff at Abaarso. “If you are a child in that world, you don’t have opportunities.”

The school was created to provide promising Somali students access to something that could elevate them out of turmoil, and possibly change the future of the country: an education. In 2010, Abaarso sent its first student to America for a one-year fellowship at Worcester Academy. Three years later, that student, Mubarik Mahamoud, was part of Abaarso’s first graduating class, a cohort of 32 students. A handful of them received admission and scholarships to American universities. Poor recordkeeping is a hallmark of the world’s leading failed state, but Somali experts tell the filmmakers that this is the first group of native students to enroll at U.S. schools since the 1980s.

JMU graduate and "Capturing Oswald" filmmaker Kate Griendling joined the film project in late 2014.

JMU graduate and “Capturing Oswald” filmmaker Kate Griendling (’08) joined the film project in late 2014.

Today, 29 Abaarso students are studying at boarding schools and universities in the United States, including Amherst, Georgetown and Carnegie Mellon. Abaarso recently received its first capital grant, a $291,000 investment that will expand the school by adding classrooms, dormitories and computer labs. The campus—a 200-meter-by-300-meter hilltop rectangle in the middle of the desert—has grown into a community of around 185 students and 15 faculty and staff. It’s a testament, Lee said, to how far resources can go in the developing world.

Still, the odds are stacked against Abaarso students. They are submitting grades from a school no one knows, taking standardized tests written in another language. And they need full scholarships to study in America. The documentary, Powell explained, will follow a handful of students and demonstrate a country-wide struggle for education, healthcare and women’s rights, among other topics.

Those fortunate enough to make it to America, he said, seek to return to Somalia.

“They want to go back and make it a better place,” he said. “They are cognizant of the opportunities they have. They recognize they have a chance to make a difference.”

Ben Powell ('05), pictured above, began working on the documentary in early 2014.

Ben Powell (’05) began working on the documentary in early 2014.

The filmmakers plan to blog about their experiences during the three-week trip to the country, providing an unfiltered look at a land that has no U.S. diplomatic or military presence. Powell is making his second trip to Somalia. Griendling, who co-produced the documentary Capturing Oswald in 2013, is traveling to the country for the first time.

Their goal is simple: tell the story of Somalia’s most successful educational venture in decades, and the challenges it still faces.

“We’ve seen developing countries rise and fall,” Griendling said. “This is an opportunity to showcase a country that may have a blueprint for other developing nations to replicate.”

James Irwin ('11)

James Irwin (’06)

James Irwin is a 2006 graduate of the School of Media Arts and Design and the author of Midnight in Chattanooga: The game, the team and the dream behind the rise of JMU football. Formerly the assistant director of JMU’s alumni association, James is associate editor of George Washington Today at George Washington University.

Many thanks to James for pitching the story and doing most of the work.

All photos courtesy of Abaarso Film


About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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