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Conversation with JONATHAN STARR

Worcester native builds schools in Somaliland

By Laura Porter

When he started his investment business, Flagg Street Capital, Worcester native Jonathan Starr fully expected to continue a career in finance.

Instead, determined to make a bigger difference in the world, he went to Somaliland and founded a school. For the past eight years, Starr has shepherded the development of the Abaarso School of Science and Technology, a 7th to 12th grade school located in East Africa. In its first years, like any new venture, Abaarso has suffered highs and lows, soaring with the accomplishments, large and small, of its growing student body while coping with the challenges of cultural conflict and social misunderstanding. Indeed, conflict with the surrounding community has at times been literal; the school is surrounded by barbed wire and guards in order to protect students and faculty.

In his book, It Takes a School: The Extraordinary Story of an American School in the World’s #1 Failed State, Starr describes the evolution of Abaarso and how he came to commit himself to the land, the students and the belief in education as the way forward for Somaliland. The self-declared nation broke away from Somalia in civil war a quarter-century ago but is not recognized as an independent country by the international community. It remains desperately impoverished and lacking in critical infrastructure. Starr’s work, the growth of Abaarso and the success of its students have drawn widespread press attention, and Anderson Cooper’s story featuring the school aired on the CBS news program 60 Minutes last April.

In October, Starr returned to Worcester to tell a packed auditorium at the Worcester Jewish Community Center about the school of approximately 300 students. To date, $17 million has been raised or contributed for Abaarso scholarships and financial aid. More than 80 students are now attending or have graduated from prominent boarding schools and universities in the United States as well as internationally. Starr recently talked to the Ledger about his efforts via email.


Jewish Ledger (JL): You chose Somaliland as the location for the Abaarso School in large part because you are close to your uncle, Billeh, who is Somali, and his children, your cousins. Other than that family connection, why did you believe that Somaliland was the right place for such a venture?

Jonathan Starr (JS): When visiting Somaliland for the first time, it is very easy to feel Somaliland Fever all around you. The people are friendly and you feel safe.  From my first visit, it seemed like a place ready for development that was just being held back by the perception that it is part of Somalia.  Of course, that was an overly simplistic view, but that was my perception at the time.


JL: After leaving the investment world behind, you could have pursued a range of humanitarian or social justice endeavors.  Why did you decide to start a school?

(JS): There are several reasons that education appealed to me. From a development standpoint, education is the tool by which all other developments come. Everything from building roads to running quality hospitals ultimately needs educated people to succeed.  While education is a long-term solution rather than a quick fix, I don’t believe there are quick fixes when you’re talking about a war-torn country.


JL: What have been the greatest challenges?

(JS): There’s a chapter in my book called “The Great Miscalculation.”  I went in knowing I had good intentions and the ability to carry them out. I was there to help and I assumed the society would support that.  Unfortunately, that was incorrect.  Abaarso was a threat to many people in the country and to others it was an opportunity to take advantage of what they figured was a foolish foreigner who wouldn’t last long.  What’s more, many in society had never met a foreigner and were easily persuaded that I was there to do them harm.  The greatest challenge was overcoming the distrust and winning over the society.


JL: The greatest triumphs?

(JS): Without a question the greatest triumph has been the way our students have shattered all expectations both in Somaliland and internationally.  The reason they’ve been on 60 Minutes and in the New York Times is that no one expected they could perform the way they have done.  It is a joy for me to see them mature and to watch them compete favorably with even the most privileged students in the world.


JL: Inevitably, there are mistakes and missteps in any significant undertaking. With the benefit of hindsight, what would you do differently?

(JS): One of my goals in writing It Takes A School was to give others an accurate view of the types of challenges they’ll run into if they try to do something similar. While every situation is different in the details, the general concepts should hold almost anywhere. For that reason, I went out of my way to highlight how many mistakes I made, and there were a lot of them.  If there was one mistake that stood out above the others it was trusting a local partner before I had been on the ground long enough to really understand the society.  There were lots of local people who made great contributions to Abaarso, but invariably they were people who showed themselves to be such people after we were already going. They were mostly people who had real incentives to see the school succeed, such as parents.


JL: What have you learned about how Somalis view the West and the United States in particular?

JS: How Somalis view the West is not static. When Abaarso first opened, I would describe Somalis as highly skeptical of any foreigners, and Americans more than others. Americans have had little role in their lives for several decades and what Somalis have mostly seen is American meddling in the Middle East.

I believe Abaarso has done a lot to change that view in Somaliland, as it is an American-led school that is enormously popular in their country.  Previously, people in Somaliland have known very little about Americans and only heard bad stories, but now they are getting their own personal experience and it is a positive one.

I do want to contrast this with the often-stated line about Muslims that “they hate our American lifestyle.”  Sure, you can find extreme examples, but we wouldn’t want America judged by the most extreme statements some Americans make.  In my experience, Somalis very much appreciate American technology and American quality of work.  They want iPhones, Boeing planes, and Nikes.  What they don’t appreciate is American foreign policy, in particular American policy in the Middle East.


JL: What advice would you give to others in similar situations who are confronting cultural differences and conflicts?

(JS): There are two things you can do to mitigate cultural differences. The first is to adjust to the culture in every reasonable way that you can.  For example, dressing the way locals expect and being respectful of their general dos and don’ts. The second thing is to produce great results with whatever it is you are doing. If you deliver great results, then people will appreciate that your presence benefits them and they’ll be happy to have you in their society.

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