Monday, August 15, 2011
By Patrick Adams, Emory Magazine
Maaria Osman is small and slight, with hazel eyes and a round face framed by a tight-fitting hijab, the traditional head cover worn by women throughout the Muslim world and by all female teachers and students at Abaarso Tech. The school in a remote area of Somaliland is an experiment in education started by Jonathan Starr, who graduated from Emory in 1999 with a degree in economics.
Shy and reserved, Osman speaks softly in halting English. She is not yet fluent in the language.
Yet at 12, Osman is one of the best math students in the school. Last year, she had the highest score of the math section of the national exit exam, the test administered to all eighth-grade students around the country in the last days of what is, for the vast majority of Somali students, their final year of formal education.
Photo of Osman, left, by Patrick Adams.
That Osman even took the exam was unusual. According to a recent survey by UNICEF, only slightly more than a quarter of Somali girls of primary school age are enrolled in school. That figure is attributable in large part to the collapse of Somalia’s central government in 1991 and the decades of conflict that ensued. But the biggest obstacle to Somali girls’ enrollment, says UNICEF, is the tendency of mothers to keep their daughters home to share the burden of domestic labor.
For all of their daughter’s ability in the classroom, her uncommon facility for multiplying fractions, for instance, Osman’s parents had just such a plan in mind. It wasn’t that they weren’t aware of Abaarso Tech or the fact that Osman could attend the school for free. It was that her curricular achievements were immaterial to the family’s immediate needs.
But Starr persisted. Enlisting the help of some of his best female students and their mothers, he mounted a recruiting strategy worthy of a Big Ten football program. And at last, the effort paid off.
In the eight months since her arrival, Osman has exceeded expectations. Not only has she outperformed many of her peers, including a handful of diaspora students from the U.S. and the U.K., she’s exhibited a work ethic bordering on obsession.
“She does math problems in her spare time,” says math teacher Mike Freund. “Literally every night, she’ll finish her homework and come to me to ask for more. She’s incredible.”
Read the full article in Emory Magazine about the unique economic model for Abaarso Tech, which has brought a biochemistry lab, dedicated teachers and a scholarship for study in America to a parched patch of earth, in a region best known for its piracy and poverty.
Famine in Somalia driven by conflict
Blazing a new path for development work