On Aug. 30, 2012, a skinny kid walked through a gate at Dulles Airport in Virginia, emerging onto a bustling concourse dotted with ATMs and gaudily-priced restaurants. Mohamed Hussein, known almost exclusively at Amherst as “Mo,” strode out of the airport and boarded a van bound for Western Massachusetts.
The flight that Hussein disembarked from was one of the rare few that took off from Hargeisa, Hussein’s hometown. Hargeisa is the capital of Somaliland, a small, self-declared nation that separated from Somalia in 1991 but is not recognized as independent by the international community.
Hussein could easily have cast his upbringing in Hargeisa, a city of a little more than one million, in the boilerplate style of an autobiography; a story of hopelessness complete with an escape through hard work and talent. Yet he speaks of his past, and the people in it, with surprising gratitude and joy: “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
He described his as a typical Somali family, comprised of his mother, father and six siblings — two older and four younger. He spent most of his time in a roving band of misbehaving boys, who divided their time between trespassing on airport property and dueling rival groups in oft-violent soccer games. This latter activity earned some of his friends brief stints in jail, but Hussein always maneuvered clear of trouble. “Life was simple, we just wanted to be adventurous, and explore our surroundings,” he remembered. “And there was soccer.”
Though he has made his name in distance running, Hussein’s first love was soccer. “Playing soccer was the escape for me,” he said. “If I didn’t have soccer I would have had a miserable experience. I don’t think I would have been at Amherst College right now.”
Hussein’s freedom was punctuated by the decided inconvenience presented by school. Somalia and Somaliland once stood out in the region, with literacy rates near 70 percent. Following the civil war between the two in the 1980s, however, the education system was decimated.
By Hussein’s generation, schools had been rebuilt, but were nothing awe-inspiring. Not many kids in America find real inspiration in elementary school, but developing an educational drive was nearly impossible in Somaliland’s overcrowded, dilapidated schools, staffed by teachers wholly unprepared for their task. Yet Hussein holds no grudge against his teachers. “I don’t blame my teachers, because, in many ways, that was the only mode of survival for them, to feed their families,” he explains
It was his parents that forced him to school every day. His mother, who came from a nomadic herding family and struck out on her own for the city, had no formal education. She was determined that her children would receive what she had not. “I’d say, ‘This guy is beating me up, Mom,’ but she’d just say, ‘You have to go, you have to go,’” Hussein said.
Hussein became serious about school in eighth grade, when every Somali student takes national exams, which more or less determine a student’s educational future. “For this one I actually had to change my friend group — I couldn’t play as much soccer as I normally did,” he said, joking, “I had to switch to the nerds.”
A Schoool Called Drought
The switch worked. Mo was admitted to the Abaarso School of Science and Technology, which was opening that year and was led by Jonathan Starr, a former hedge fund manager, whose Somali uncle had convinced him to start a school in Somaliland.
“That school changed my life,” Hussein said. “That’s where the story of me speaking English and me loving school, loving learning — that’s when all that started.” But Abaarso was a far cry from the lush prep schools we picture in the United States. Abaarso looks more like a military installation, or even a prison. 12-foot cement walls, topped with razor wire, surrounded the 12-acre compound. Towers manned by armed guards looked out over the miles of dusty desert that surrounded the campus, interrupted not even by so much as a house. Starr had built his school in perhaps the worst place imaginable. Abaarso, the name of the town nearest the school, means “drought.” There was no source of water, and no system of pipes to be found. Water had to be delivered daily, by truck.
Starr insisted on complete English immersion. Hussein described this as the greatest culture shock of his life: “I was so disoriented. I was in the same country, but I was almost in a different universe.” Over time Hussein and his classmates learned, and he quickly began to excel in school. He soon was “shortlisted” for placement in a New England prep school.
In March of 2012, Starr came to Hussein’s room on campus. Hussein had been accepted to Northfield Mount Hermon (NMH), a boarding school in western Massachusetts.
Not long later, Hussein received a visit from Grant Gonzalez, NMH’s director of international education. Gonzalez, sitting beside Hussein in the middle of the Somali desert, showed him pictures of the campus where he would live for the next two years.
“Grant comes over, and starts showing me pictures of this school, pictures of the facilities, of the gym, the academic buildings, the dormitories,” Hussein recalled. No guard tower, no razor wire, no 12-foot walls. And, it was green. “That was what my focus went to, how much green there was … that almost got my heart pacing.” Then Gonzalez, NMH’s track coach, asked a question that would change Hussein’s life: “Do you want to go for a run?”
If Hussein’s stride then was anything like it is today — flowing, powerful and seemingly effortless — Gonzalez must have immediately become giddy. He was soon selling Hussein on the school’s cross country team.
America at Last
At the end of the summer, Hussein bid farewell to his family and to his classmates, and left dusty Abaarso for NMH’s verdant perch above the Connecticut River. On his first day, he walked to the flagpole in the center of the campus, where the cross country team met each day for practice. “Immediately, I felt the camaraderie of the team,” Hussein remembered.
Though his soccer friends were still in Somaliland, he found new kinship with a very different crew at NMH. Running gave Hussein a chance to continue the exploration he had enjoyed as a child, now in the lush setting of Gill, Massachusetts.
“What attracted me was how safe, but also how scenic and peaceful it was,” he said. In the leafy surroundings of NMH’s campus, Hussein found a sport that he loved. “I didn’t even think about the competition at first,” he said, a statement anyone who has seen him race will have trouble believing. “Before that, I was like, ‘This is peaceful, this is scenic, and also the camaraderie is second to none.’”
The rest is history. At NMH he won multiple conference championships and, as a senior, was named Massachusetts’ Gatorade Athlete of the Year. At Amherst, he has won two NESCAC titles, five All-American awards and been named as an Academic All-American countless times more.
Hussein’s celebrity at Amherst, however, has less to do with his athletic performance than with his interest in others. If you’ve met Hussein, he knows your name. He probably knows your major too, and where you’re from. Hussein was late for our interview, as he was busy watching his friends in Dancing And Stepping at Amherst College perform on Admitted Students’ Day.
And as we spoke, Hussein raved about the people who had helped him get to where he is. “For me what’s most important is that it’s not a story about my journey, it’s about the people who shaped my story … Those people are the bones,” he said.
He told me about his siblings and his friends, and made sure I knew their names. He told me about Susan Starr, his old host mother whom he simply calls “mom.” He talked about Randy Valdez, his “mentor, friend” and, most importantly, “boss” in the equipment room. Billy McBride, another mentor and friend. He talked about his friend Darienne, with whom he started Shaah and Sheeko, a group that meets for “tea and storytelling,” the rough translation of its name. He went on about the friends he met through the African-Caribbean Student Union.
The Finish Line & Beyond
After senior awards, Hussein walked out from a boiling Johnson Chapel onto a first-year quad speckled with spike ball sets and Adirondack chairs. The weather had broken a couple days before, and sunbathers lay in the afternoon sun, worshipping the newly-dawning spring. His slight frame was weighed down by a trophy he had received an hour before — the Howard Hill Mossman trophy, given each year to an athlete who, through athletic achievement and sportsmanship, “brought the greatest honor in athletics to the alma mater.”
Hussein was eager to talk about the future — just not his own. When he showed up to the library for our interview he was nearly giddy: he had discovered that a Somali student was among Amherst’s new admitted class. “It’s cool to see that the Somali flag will be there,” he said, referencing the annual City Streets display. “They don’t have to get a new one; they can just keep this one for the next four years.”
As excited as he was about this, he was more excited about his sister, Hamda. She had just been accepted to the Berkshire School, another prep school in Western Massachusetts. “That was, kinda, the proudest moment of my time here … She’s younger than me, obviously, but she’s someone that I look up to … a natural-born leader … I want her to have a better experience than I did, and do more, and she will definitely have more opportunities available to her.” After his struggles and triumphs, Hussein hopes, his sister will walk more freely the path he blazed before her.
As for his own future, Hussein will graduate with a double major in economics and Asian languages and civilizations, as well as a five-college certificate in African studies.
He plans to find work at a boarding school, teaching and coaching track. This he will do for two years before heading back to Somaliland to work with a group starting a chain of middle schools — fulfilling Abaarso’s mission to train the country’s future leaders.
Mo’s legacy at Amherst will be one of a student and an athlete, who met the adversity, culture shock and unfamiliarity of his journey with courage, optimism, generosity and grace, and whose ferocity in competition rivaled his kindness in demeanor. With all he has ahead, we wish him the best.