By Mila Koumpilova
When Ava Ramberg and Kelly Heller arrived in the autonomous Somaliland region of Somalia in 2011, they planned to teach for a year. Within weeks, the Twin Cities natives knew they’d stay longer.
The pair helped shape a boarding school recently launched by an East Coast hedge fund manager with half a million dollars of his own money. At the Abaarso School of Science and Technology, Ramberg and Heller struggled to get the knack of teaching — and saw students land full rides to selective colleges.
“There was a kind of addiction in knowing we had a lot to contribute,” said Ramberg, who stayed three years and oversees the school’s finances from New York.
In 2011, both women were recent college graduates: Ramberg of the University of Minnesota, Heller of the University of Wisconsin. Postings on a site that lists international nonprofit jobs caught their eye. For school founder Jonathan Starr, Somaliland was full of potential: more stable than much of the war-ravaged country, but sorely lacking in infrastructure.
For the Minnesotans, the new jobs were tough. New to teaching, they had to draw out shy, reticent newcomers to the school. They faced local mistrust of foreigners.
But the students won them over, said Heller, now in grad school at Columbia University: “We came to care for them so incredibly much.” One student read two English dictionaries cover to cover. Pupils, some of whom had lost parents in the war, pleaded for extra homework and scarfed down lunches to get back to studying.
The women found Minnesota to be an instant icebreaker. The state is known for its Somali community, which has chipped in to pay for Abaarso students’ tuition.
More than 30 students have moved on to colleges worldwide, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Most will be back, Ramberg said: “When students come to us, it is ingrained in them they are the future of their country.”
Mila Koumpilova (612) 673-4781