Using Differences to Change the World

Written by Qadan Mohamed

I was born different. I am one of 12 children, female, and born in the country of Somaliland.  I was born without a left arm, and I vividly remember praying in silent every night hoping God will accept my prayers and I would wake up with a second one. However, my country context, physical disability and gender ended up being the reason I am where I am today, proving that opportunity comes out of difference.

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Watching the sunset in Abaarso, Somaliland

Many people don’t know much about my country. After a destructive civil war in 1991, four years before I was born, the Republic of Somaliland declared its independence from Somalia. Even though Somaliland is not internationally recognized country, it has established a stable government and is slowly rebuilding from the distractions of the war. However, Somaliland still is dealing with poor infrastructure, lack of job opportunities for its youth, and high infant mortality and maternal deaths.

The main religion in Somaliland is Islam and culturally conservative, which often translates to difficulties for girls like me to access higher education. Because of my disability, my parents sent me away from home to Burao to live with my aunt and uncle.  My uncle, a self-taught anentrepreneur, was different- he was very optimistic about my future. He once told me, “I want you to take advantage of every opportunity you get. I want you be self-sufficient and make informed choices about your future.”  He knew that education is critical to breaking the cycle of poverty and cultural ideals of women in my community. Despite my difference, I was no exception to the expectations he had for his daughters, sons, and nieces and nephews.   

A girl in my family had never attended high school.  To the shock of my family, my uncle helped me enroll at Abaarso School, a boarding school run by American Jonathan Starr, and not the tradition Muslim educators we are used to.  Abaarso helped me be more optimistic about the future of my country. I was surrounded by young women and men studied hard and had passion to give back. We developed leadership skills through community service as tutors, student body leaders, and most importantly older students are role models for younger students. This school was different.  Like most of my friends, I had never volunteered before coming. Abaarso creates alums who ambitiously develop their country so our next generations have access to opportunities most of our parents never had.

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Me (left) with my best friend Hayat on Abaarso graduation day

I am proud of how far Somaliland has come since declaring its independence but there is a long way to go. Somaliland’s unemployment rate estimated at 75% and lack of alternative opportunities are not limited to but highly contribute to the massive youth migration. I am confident in my fellow Abaarso alums, who are fortunate enough to study abroad to gain a global perspective to contribute to the development of Somaliland and break some of the traditional conformist roles and norms that challenge us. I also want to highlight that educated and strong women like Edna Adan inspire young women like me to continue fighting for our nation. Our generation is different, and we are working towards a better Somaliland.

I am an honors student in my sophomore year at Marist College, I chose to study psychology to address the serious need  to treat mental illness, particularly post-conflict induced stress in Somaliland. Individuals who struggle with mental illness are either chained or left alone to roam around the streets. Instead of addressing the problem, it is ignored and sick people are stigmatized. One needs mental stability and a place to ask for help without shame, particularly as a society recovers from conflict. Providing access and promoting the importance of self-care will heal Somaliland, allowing us to take our difficult history and move forward. It will inspire youth to forge their own path and find their passions.

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The night before I travelled to the U.S. with two of my friends.

I had first-hand experience of what feels like to not belong in your own community, but I am not a victim.  I am taking a different approach to development, despite my family’s expectation that I should be a doctor, accountant, or engineer. I am proud of my differences, and I hope to channel them to inspire positive changes.   I want to serve those who live in the shadow and be a source of hope for a healthier society. I need to understand my community’s culture of conformity and the behaviors that are making development and peace difficult. I encourage my fellow young people to embrace what makes them different and use it to change the world.

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