The lineup of speakers at Abaarso School’s 2014 end-of- year ceremony included some of Somaliland’s most powerful ministers, dignitaries and religious leaders. Yet with all of these among all those on stage, only one person moved the crowd to tears: Sahra Aw Ciise Jama, an Abaarso 11th grader. “I’d never before witnessed Somali men crying in public,” Abaarso Founder Jonathan Starr remembered, “and here there were rows of them wiping their eyes.”
Sahra was born in Gabilay, a poor agricultural town in Somaliland, shortly after the country declared independence from Somalia on the heels of a brutal civil war. In addition to these difficulties, Gabilay’s education system is lacking even by Somaliland’s standards, and girls especially are chronically under-educated. From a young age, though, Sahra was encouraged by her father to pursue her education, and she developed a drive that would eventually make her one of the great success stories of her region.
As an 8th grader, Sahra earned a scholarship to attend Abaarso. While the majority of girls her age in Somaliland had left the school system and many were getting married, Sahra excelled at Abaarso in classes with the top students in the country. She quickly adapted to the school’s curriculum and teachers, and her uncommon focus and ambition helped her produce one of the top high school records of any student in the Abaarso’s history.
Challenges remained, though, especially in her adjustment to a more holistic education, in preparation for attending university in the United States. As many international students do, Sahra struggled with standardized testing, and had to overcome a primary education that taught her only through rote memorization, and left her far behind her international peers. She also had to figure out how to channel her talent into activities outside the classroom. At the urging of her teachers, she branched out beyond her focus on academic success and involved herself throughout the school. She joined clubs and began playing sports; and as an 11th grader, she was named Head Proctor for the girls, a position which she held with wide respect.
After finishing 11th grade, Sahra left Somaliland to study in the United States for a year, a departure that was the occasion for her speech that moved so many people, and marked her as an important future leader in Somaliland. Through the ASSIST program, Sahra spent a year at Chatham Hall in Virginia, where she similarly excelled and won praise from all those around her.
She returned to Abaarso for a gap year and, while working on her college applications, was the school’s Executive Assistant, where she coordinated Abaarso’s financials and led school communications with members of Somaliland society. Reflecting on the education that has brought her this far, Sahra comments that “one of the things that I am so happy about is being in a community that is… letting me raise my voice, helping me to develop my leadership skills… helping me to be a good role model for every girl.”
Sahra is already a role model for girls in her country; in August, she will join Brandeis University as a Wien International Scholar, making her part of the first group of Somaliland students in decades to earn scholarships to study in the United States. Anne Stanley of ASSIST calls Sahra a “peacemaker.” Somaliland, which has seen war, terrorism and poverty in Sahra’s lifetime, is fortunate to have such a gifted young woman as part of its next generation of leaders.