Something had changed in Harry Lee, who had just gotten back from three years working at Abaarso School of Science and Technology, a boarding school in a tiny village in northwest Somalia. Opened in 2009 by a former hedge fund manager named Jonathan Starr, Abaarso had just become the first school in the country to send Somali students to American universities in over three decades.
“For me, it was a life-changing experience…I think there’s a lot of international aid projects where they’re working towards something that sort of has this far-off goal,” said Lee, a 28-year-old alumnus of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria.
“And that is true at Abaarso. The school’s really trying to change and develop the country by producing these students, who are going to be the future leaders. But working in a school you also get that immediate gratification of helping students and seeing them develop everyday as young people. So it was really an incredible experience.”
So Lee – inspired by the Academy Award-winning 2011 film “Undefeated” – reached out to George Mason High School alumnus Ben Powell, a filmmaker friend of his older brother, for help telling Abaarso’s story. “After watching that right around graduation, it gave me the idea that the Abaarso story is something that people would really care about, something that people would want to see,” Lee said. “That the school has the type of students that people want to root for and want to hear their stories and better understand them.”
Lee pitched the idea of making a documentary on Abaarso to Powell and, after some planning, they took an exploratory trip to Somalia last summer to check out the school, interview some of the students to figure out who to focus on and see if the project was feasible. Powell said that’s when he was sold on doing the film, which has a working title of “Abaarso” and is being produced by Powell’s company Ben Powell Media.
“These kids are really special,” Powell said. “And there’s something that you can’t really communicate without meeting them. And that’s something that hopefully we’ll be able to tell through the movie.”
Lee and Powell spoke to the News-Press a day before flying out to Somalia, where they just began the final phase of filming the documentary. They will be there for three weeks, joined by Kate Griendling, an independent filmmaker who co-produced “Capturing Oswald” for Discovery Communications in 2013.
Griendling, an alumna of W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, went to Robert Frost Middle School with Lee. A high school classmate of hers reconnected her with Lee when they found out what he was trying to accomplish and saw the experience she was gaining through her television work.
She started talking to Lee about the documentary in late 2014 and eventually joined the project as a producer. “The more and more Harry and I talked…the more I became committed to the project,” Griendling said. “You know, obviously pro-bono, I just wanted to help a friend and I started to really believe in what Harry’s trying to do and the story he’s trying to tell. And so eventually it became a full-time thing.”
Griendling told the News-Press that she joined the project in part because she believed in his vision for the film, but also because she felt a sense of duty to pay forward the education she gained in Fairfax County. She said she also believes in what the Abaarso school is trying to accomplish.
“I think that in the worst case scenario the school can be a learning tool and in the best case scenario it can be a blueprint for other developing countries to follow in terms of prioritizing education, interacting with the tribe and clan and culture and making sure there’s this meeting of West and East based in compromise and understanding when so much of what we see on television now and the media is clashing and this idea that they can’t coexist,” Griendling said.
So far, Abaarso has been a success story. Students from the school have earned scholarships to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Georgetown University and Carnegie Mellon University. Starr had been privately funding the school until it recently received a $300,000 grant from USAID.
But people have raised concerns over the potential impact of the school and the school’s safety. Lee said that one of the topics he hears most often when telling people about Abaarso and the documentary he’s working on now is whether or not the school will contribute to the decades-long brain drain of the African continent.
“I think it’s especially magnified in this situation because these are the first students from the country to get access to get U.S. education in over 30 years,” Lee said.
“There are some American-run schools in Africa that will have contracts that the kids need to sign saying they will go back, but Starr and the staff at Abaarso have really gone out of the way to establish an identity and a culture so that the students understand that they’re all working towards the same mission. They’re all working towards building the country.”
He acknowledged the possibility that the Abaarso alumni could “ditch the plan,” of helping to develop the country, but said that, because of the tribal, clan-based nature of the society, there’s a greater emphasis on staying connected to the country. “Everyone is interconnected and Somalis, whether they’re in Somalia or Minneapolis or Toronto or Norway or Australia, all know what’s going on in their community back home,” Lee said. “And they all are very tied together and close-knit, so, for our kids, even if they come to the U.S. for education, they still have this strong pull back home…and they feel this responsibility to their people.”
Also, Somalia, plagued by news stories about the presence of pirates and Al-Shabaab, was the number one failed state in the world until recently. And it only fell to the number two failed state in the world in 2014, behind war torn South Sudan.
Lee, Powell and now Griendling said that family members have expressed concern for their safety in Somalia, a country that has not had an American embassy since the 1990s and has no American military presence. According to Lee, the school has been identified by Al-Shabaab as a potential target. But Powell said that the weeks leading up to his first trip to Abaarso were nerve-wracking, because of his preconceived notions about violence and danger in Somalia.
“My dad is in the foreign service and even he was like ‘Do you really know what you’re doing?’ and ‘I don’t know if you should really be going’ but in the area where the school is in Somaliland, violent crime is virtually non-existent,” Powell said. “While I was there I felt very safe and granted it was a third world country, which is a very different experience, but it’s not like I was scared for my life out there.”
Griendling said ahead of the trio’s flight to Somalia last weekend that she was afraid, but has been reluctant to admit that because of how much trepidation her family’s expressed. “I’m scared, I am. And it’s something that I try to hide a lot of the time because of my loved ones,” Griendling said.
“I’d like to ease the fears of my loved ones, but I think most of what I carry comes from everyone else. I personally feel that I will be okay. But the part of me that’s scared is that if something were to happen, I would be devastated by what that would do to my family.”
Still, Griendling said that she knows what she’s getting herself into by going over there and is still compelled by the aforementioned sense of duty.
While they’re in Somalia, the “Abaarso” production team will be blogging about their experiences behind the camera and providing commentary about the development of the film and its central characters. Powell said that once they return there will be about another year of post-production to finish the film.
Lee said he hopes that the project will help Americans relate to people from a far away place that they will probably never travel to.
“We hope that it will be a good experience to hear about a far off place that you don’t hear a lot about through the eyes of local kids,” Lee said.
“We all grew up in the local area, went to local high schools, went to universities inside Virginia…and I think for the vast majority of Americans and Northern Virginians who will never set foot in Somalia, I think we can really give them this experience through our own eyes and have them relate to these students’ experiences.”