By Ryan McDonald
Kate Griendling did not know what to expect on arriving in Somaliland. But she was not exactly counting on “Glee” and Taylor Swift.
Griendling, a Hermosa Beach resident and filmmaker, arrived in the horn of Africa for work on a documentary film project. She and fellow filmmakers Harry Lee and Ben Powell followed five students as they studied, struggled and strived at Abaarso, a school in Somaliland that takes in local kids and prepares them to seek admission to American universities and boarding schools.
During downtime from filming, Griendling fondly recalls hanging out with students in the girls’ dormitory. When conversation turned to “American Idol” and other touchstones of American pop culture, she marveled at the way globalization had made connection possible with people living in otherwise constrained circumstances. The moment revealed a bit of hope and normalcy that is often lost in the doom-and-gloom debates over foreign aid and global poverty.
“We were talking about what these things mean, in context, to them. It felt like hanging out with friends,” she said.
The film, “Somaliland: The Abaarso Story,” is nearing completion, and the three hope to screen it throughout the country. It arrives at a significant time. Five Abaarso students, the first cohort to venture abroad, will be graduating from U.S. universities this spring. And for those still awaiting decisions in Somaliland, their future is clouded by President Trump’s executive order, recently suspended by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, limiting entry from seven majority-Muslim nations, including Somalia.
Somaliland is an autonomous region of northwestern Somalia, the long-troubled east African country suffering through decades of civil war, famine and political instability. Lee said that while Somaliland does struggle with from severe poverty and isolation, its differences with its neighbor to the south are instructive. The two share language, ethnicity and culture, but have experienced very different outcomes over the past 20 years, a result that Lee compared to a study of identical twins.
“Somaliland has been almost entirely ignored since 1991. They have every problem you would expect for a developing country, but they have had peaceful transitions of power, which is something most developing countries can’t claim,” Lee said.
Lee left the United States in 2010 to work at Abaarso, which was founded the year before by Jonathan Starr, a former hedge fund manager who left Wall Street to devote himself to the school. The project was, Lee acknowledges, “atypical in many ways,” and stood out from other established aid programs. But the failures of the heavy intervention of the United Nations and United States in Somalia proper, where the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Shabab rules much of the country, left room for experimentation.
“[Starr] had no experience in international aid, and he had never lived in a foreign country. I don’t know if he’d even visited a developing country,” Lee said.
Since opening, Abaarso has become one of the most successful aid projects in the region. The comparative political stability of Somaliland has allowed the school to focus on lifting selected students out of deeply entrenched poverty and isolation. Many students come from nomadic families that they must leave behind while living at Abaarso. Most are the first member of their family to ever have any kind of formal education.
After hatching the idea of the documentary, Lee contacted Powell, who runs a Washington, D.C. production company. Powell said that the filmmakers chose to frame the documentary around the students’ efforts to get into school in part to make the film relatable to U.S. audiences, with many prospective viewers recently removed from the admissions process themselves. (College campuses are the primary venue on which the filmmakers hope to screen the film.)
But more broadly, Powell hopes to undermine the “us versus them mentality” that has taken hold in some corners of foreign policy. By seeing similar anxiety and striving in a place halfway across the world and far less developed, he reasons, viewers will internalize that the commonalities greatly outnumber the differences.
“What’s more American than each generation of parents wanting a better life for their kids?” Powell asked.
Griendling went to middle school with Lee, and hadn’t heard from him in years when he reached out. She initially got involved with the project on a part-time basis, but as time went on she became more deeply involved. When the time came for her to head to Somaliland to shoot, she was nervous, and not sure about what she was getting into.
“I was one of those people who fall into category of only knowing what you hear in the media: pirates, terrorists, and ‘Blackhawk Down,’” Griendling said.
At first, her worries seem justified. She arrived without a dira, the combination dress-hijab that is the common garment for women in that part of the world. But she needn’t have been concerned. Amaal, one of the five students profiled in the film, gave her a dira. Like other students at the school, Amaal’s family survives on about $2 per day.
Today, Amaal, is in college in the United States. She and another Abaarso student spent last Christmas with Griendling’s family in Virginia. During the visit, the students and women of the Griendling family gathered for a photo — all wearing diras.
Somaliland: The Abaarso Story is seeking donations on Kickstarter to finish the film. To contribute, go to: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/71323644/somaliland-the-abaarso-story.