Keeping Score: Runner without a country
Mohamed Hussein is proud of his heritage. He was born and raised in Somaliland (not to be confused with Somalia), which borders Ethiopia to the west and Somalia to the south and is across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen.
A senior at Northfield Mount Hermon School, he is a gifted student and talented runner. On Veterans’ Day he lined up for the school’s 123rd running of the Bemis-Forslund Pie Race and broke the 4.3-mile course record by nine seconds, winning in 22 minutes, 26 seconds.
Two days prior to that, Hussein broke the course record at St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., while winning the New England prep school cross country championships. His time of 16:06 over the 5,000-meter course eclipsed by five second the previous mark held by current Olympian Guor Majak. The two have similar backgrounds; Majak was a teenage refugee from southern Sudan.
Last week in the Bronx, Hussein placed 14th out of 107 runners at the Foot Locker Northeast Regional Cross Country Championships at Van Cortland Park. The top 10 finishers advanced to next Saturday’s national finals in San Diego.
“He did his first mile in 4:50,” NMH cross country coach Grant Gonzalez said of Hussein’s romp in the Bronx. “He has a high trajectory, high potential. He’s only been running 16 months but he’s extremely coachable. He’s been patient and worked on getting stronger.”
Gonzalez noted that the best 5- and 10,000-meter runner in the world, Mohamed “Mo” Farah, was born in Somalia and now lives in Great Britain.
The 28-year-old Gonzalez teaches Middle East history and Arabic at NMH and is Hussein’s dorm master, mentor and friend. A native of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., he attended the Salisbury School in northwest Connecticut the day of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “I realized there weren’t too many Arabic speakers or speakers of Middle Eastern languages. I wanted to bridge a couple of worlds.”
At the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., Gonzalez majored in International Relations and Government and got a master’s in Middle East Studies. A five-minute miler, he was the middle man who helped arrange Hussein’s journey to America.
This extraordinary opportunity that befell the son of a Somaliland clan leader was the work of Jonathan Starr, a 35-year-old Worcester native whose uncle, Bill Osman, lived in Somaliland and worked for the United Nations. Starr graduated summa cum laude in economics from Atlanta-based Emory University. He subsequently founded a hedge fund company called Flagg Street Capital and made his first million before he was 30.
Then he got restless. “I’m obsessive by nature, but I wanted to be obsessive about something else,” he told Business Week in 2012.
He closed his company in 2007 and visited his uncle in Somaliland.
The Emory alumni magazine described the Somalian region as best known for “its pirates and poverty, droughts and famine.” During regional civil conflict in 1991, Somaliland broke away from Somalia. Though it has yet to achieve statehood, it has its own police force, military and elected government, issues its own passports and controls its borders, but receives no foreign aid because it is internationally unrecognized.
Starr saw that the majority of Somaliland’s young people were unemployed and that its educational system was rudimentary. He spent $500,000 to found a school for 100 of the country’s top boys and girls. The school is called Abaarso Tech and its mission is to be a stepping stone toward getting an American education. “These are the students that Starr hopes can transform Somaliland,” said Gonzalez.
According to the Emory Magazine article, Starr recruited college graduates “with sterling resumes” to be teachers working 70-hour weeks for $3,000 a year. “Our employees’ principal form of compensation is pride in a worthy deed well done,” he told the magazine.
Starr works all but three weeks of the year at Abaarso Tech, named for the village where it’s located. The school is protected by a nine-foot high security wall and patrolled by guards wary of the terrorist group Al-Shabaab.
Studying at Abaarso, the 5-foot-6, 110-pound Hussein slept in a mosque four hours a night and used a dictionary to learn English. He also speaks Arabic and his native tongue Somali. He’s one of the first four students to have enrolled in a U.S. school. “One’s at Worcester Academy (Starr’s alma mater), one’s at the Taft School (in Connecticut), and one went to Worcester Academy and is now at MIT,” said Gonzalez.
Two years ago Hussein won a half-marathon, his first competitive race. Thinking this combination of intelligence and running ability could garner him a scholarship, Starr met with Gonzalez and other NMH administrators. “NMH knew of my interest in the Islamic world and agreed I should go over,” said Gonzalez. “I’m curious. I like to travel. It was an opportunity to see the culture and establish ties.”
That was two summers ago. He flew from New York to London to Dubai and into Somaliland, landing in a city called Berbero and busing the final three hours to Abaarso. “It was not the easiest of trips.”
The two were introduced and ran in the region’s high country 5,500 feet above sea level, stepping around rocks and broken glass and on the lookout for ubiquitous packs of baboons.
“Here was a kid who wasn’t training and had no problems keeping up and pushing the pace on me,” said Gonzalez.
Hussein was accepted on a scholarship and in a recent telephone interview spoke in short, clipped sentences, sometimes pausing to think of the right word. He said the hardest part of being 7,300 miles from his home was missing his friends, his parents and his siblings, three brothers and four sisters. “Everything is very different from where I came from, the scenery ... it’s green, the trees and everything, very different.”
“I have mixed feelings about snow,” he added. “I like the beauty. It looks awesome and then it gets muddy and there’s nothing going on and everybody is inside.”
His favorite food is steak and his favorite beverage is hot chocolate. He stays at Starr’s mother’s house in Worcester when school’s not in session. His favorite subject is U.S. Government and Civil Liberties and watching the Red Sox at Fenway Park is “on my bucket list.”
He laughed at that last remark, but turned serious about running. “My coach has taken me to a different level. I didn’t know what my potentials were, but here everyone cares about me. The cross country team’s been really awesome.”
Gonzalez said the hunt is on for the college that will meet Hussein’s academic needs and running talent. “He’ll be suited for the longer distances in college. His endurance is really strong. He’s a remarkable young man who I’m sure could do amazing things.”
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.