PORTRAITS BY CHUN-LI 'KEN' HUANG
A characteristically hot school day in Somaliland found 14-year-old Amal Mohamed preparing for a show-down. She stood outside the door of her school with a pile of stones in hand, awaiting the target—a math teacher at the school—to show himself.
Suddenly, her little sister appeared by her side and said, “What are you doing?”
Amal explained her motive: Earlier that day, the teacher spotted a calculator in Amal’s desk and accused her of cheating on a math exam. He tore apart her paper in front of the entire class. The punishment was unjustified, however, as the professor had clearly made calculator use permissible in the previous class.
Within minutes, Amal was joined not only by her one sister but by three of her nine siblings—who had taken to Amal’s mission and immediately formed a frontier outside the school. The teacher himself had gathered a group of faculty as a protective shield.
“I was really wild when I was young,” said Amal, a Saudi-Arabian native who spent the majority of her childhood in Somaliland. “Back home [in Somaliland], we don’t express emotions—it’s very uncommon in African countries. We would rather process it in our head. I struggled because I always had so much emotion.”
Little did she know at the time, Amal’s childhood uninhibitedness would later mature into a passion for advocating equal opportunity in her country. Having witnessed the oppression of women and disabled individuals in Somaliland, she would harness her emotional intelligence to spark opportunity and catalyze cultural change.
Her vibrant sense of self eventually guided her journey to America, where she now prepares to graduate from Marist College with a communications degree. After completing an internship at CBS last summer, she has aspirations of producing her own investigative journalism network, where she aims to one day return to Somaliland and give voice to her community.
Nonetheless, Amal’s journey was imbued with wild unpredictability.
Born in Saudi Arabia to Somali parents, Amal and her siblings encountered severe ethnic discrimination in the divided country throughout their childhood. Amal recalls an incident when she and one of her sisters were playing on a new ladder outside their school.
The headmaster of the school took notice of the Mohamed sisters and immediately dragged the girls off the ladder. “If I see you do that again, I will put both of you on a plane and ship you back to Sudan,” the headmaster said.
“I never felt like I belonged [in Saudi Arabia],” Amal said. “We were always the ‘others.’”
One day, when Amal was 11, her dad announced that the family would be moving from Saudi Arabia to Somaliland. “I think it’s time you guys go to the homeland,” he said. He had received a job in Ireland, but he wanted his wife and children to settle in Somaliland before they could eventually join him in the United Kingdom.“We weren’t even sad to leave,” Amal recalled.
Amal parted ways with her father and joined the rest of her family in creating a new life abroad. She wouldn’t see her father again until she was 18. In Somaliland, Amal’s mother worked tirelessly to make ends meet for her nine children. She opened up a shop in the family’s house, which served as their main source of income. “My mom was always my role model,” Amal said. “She was very independent.”Amal adopted her mom’s independence and thirst for edification. After graduating 8th grade, she applied to a boarding school placement program, which placed her in an unconventional American-run institution called Abaarso Boarding school.
The school, which was located five hours away from Amal’s house, was a risky cultural endeavor. The majority of parents in Somaliland rejected the idea of an Americanized institution, and many did not want to send their kids to unsupervised boarding schools.“Parents were freaking out because they thought that Americans would inflict their culture on us,” Amal recalled. “At first, I didn’t want to go to it because it was new, it was run by foreigners, and nobody else wanted to go to it.”
But Amal’s mom, who recognized her own independence in Amal, urged her daughter to pursue the opportunity. “When I told her, I think she saw herself in me... she said, ‘I think it’s gonna help you become independent; you should go,” Amal recalled.
A few short months later, Amal parted ways with her family and headed to Abaarso School in Hargesia, Somaliland. She took with her only the limited amount of English she had picked up from watching the show Friends back in Saudi Arabia.
“JUST GIVE IT A CHANCE, IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE”—Just as she had expected, Amal encountered homesickness and struggle during her first days at the boarding school. She was joined by only 55 students at Abaarso, her class consisting of 11 girls and 44 boys. The dormitories were not yet finished, and Amal had to commute to the school from her uncle’s house nearby as classes began.
One day, the headmaster of Abaarso saw Amal crying. Consoling her, the headmaster told her, “Just give it a chance, it will change your life.”Shortly after, one of the commuter busses that transported a group of Abaarso’s students to school suffered a minor crash, prompting the administration to house the kids temporarily in its unfinished building.
Amal found herself sleeping in the science laboratory with the 10 other female students in her school. The 44 boys, who were dispersed throughout the classrooms, suffered a much tighter squeeze. “The buildings were not done, so we had to live in the science rooms,” Amal recalled. “It was fun, that made us so close because we lived together.”
Amal soon began fostering strong friendships. She immersed herself in the school’s goings-on, and her outgoing and authentic personality warranted her the nickname: BBC Amal.“We built such a strong connection. For you, you go to school and go back home. For us it wasn’t like that—we were always together that we built such a strong connection with each other and we became family. I see my headmaster as one of my best friends.”
Amal’s experience at Abaarso was a bit of a cultural crossing. Her American teachers, who initially harbored very limited knowledge of Somaliland culture, began to adopt the country’s customs.“The teachers were very cautious about what they did or said,” Amal recalled. “Back home, everyone wears a headscarf. We don’t wear pants—walking around with pants is like you walking around in a bikini. Teachers started adhering to those cultural norms.”
Amal also gleaned insight from the American way of life—a culture that welcomed and encouraged self-expression.“I used to make my emotions transport to anger, and I used to act through anger, most of the time,” Amal said. “Through [the teachers], I learned that you can actually express your emotions and process it in ways other than anger.”
EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE THROUGH THE SKY Amal’s opportunity at Abaarso Boarding School did, in fact, prove to be life-changing. After completing her four years, she decided to pursue a postgraduate year, where she swept in a small cultural revolution while conducting her final project.
She always bore a passion for helping others, namely kids with disabilities. In Somaliland, however, disabilities are not openly accepted and often swept under the rug. Growing up around a cousin with severe autism, Amal was exposed to these struggles early on. “I would always visit my cousin’s house, and my aunt would say, ‘oh, he’s fine.’ I would look at him and see his condition and I would suggest different things [to help],” Amal said. “Everyone will say my emotional intelligence is through the sky. I just have this thing in me that can tell me so much about a person without them actually talking.” Given her experience with her cousin and her natural compassion, Amal was compelled to inspire hope and facilitate opportunity for disabled kids.
Soon, her aspirations evolved into a reality. She dedicated her post-graduate year to providing educational opportunities for children with disabilities. She and a team of five other post-grads went door-to-door to homes in the area, speaking with families of disabled children and convincing them to send their kids to high school. The task was not easy, as many families adhered to the cultural norm that impaired children were a burden, but after speaking with 40-50 families, Amal and her team successfully convinced 20 parents to enroll their sons and daughters in school.
“That [experience] basically transformed me—I put myself in their shoes and I went to talk to them,” Amal said. “It was just a different experience, something you can’t get in a classroom.”
She forged strong bonds with a few of the families she encountered, and after she completed her project, she returned to a particular family and said, “Thank you for listening to a high school kid and agreeing to take your kid to school.”
Amal Mohamad's Childhood Image
"I realized I can help kids back home in a different way through communication. My hope is that within two years, I can actually change my culture."
“I REALIZED THAT I CAN HELP KIDS IN A DIFFERENT WAY THROUGH COMMUNICATION”— As Amal finished up her studies at the boarding school, her mother and siblings back in Somaliland were preparing to join Amal’s father in the U.K. Amal, who was in the midst of deciding her post-high school plans, had two options: She could either move with her family to Ireland, or continue her education in America.
Ingrained with self-belief and a mission of catalyzing positive change Somaliland citizens, she decided to continue her studies abroad. After her post-graduate year, she received a scholarship through MasterCard to attend Marist College, with plans of studying social work and psychology. “It wasn’t that I wasn’t attached to my family, but I just had a bigger vision for myself. I see a path for myself, I may as well just continue with this path.”
Amal Mohamed was raised in Somaliland, where she attended one of the only American-run boarding schools; by the age of 18, Amal was sweeping in a cultural revolution in her country by facilitating education opportunities for children with disabilities. With her emotional intelligence, kind heart, and courageous ambition, Amal is constantly working to catalyze positive change in her community and inspiring others to do the same.
Quickly upon arriving to Poughkeepsie, Amal immersed herself in her studies. She underwent significant culture shock as she discovered first hand the difference between America and Somaliland in their view on disabled individuals. While America fostered a general acceptance of disabled students, orchestrating foster care programs and academic opportunities, Somaliland left little room for social acceptance much less tangible accomodation programs. During her social work field experiences, Amal came to realize that the programs were too sharpy aligned with American values to mirror back to her home country. Still motivated by her vision, she refocused her direction and decided to study journalism. In giving a platform for oppressed demographics in Somaliland to share their stories, Amal felt that she could bring to light crippling issues on a global level.
The summer before her senior year, she accepted an internship at CBS, and her future in news production was substantiated. Here, she established relationships with journalists such as Steve Hartman and worked with the producers of 60 Minutes, gaining valuable insight into the industry. “I was there with the producers doing the stories—that’s all I wanted to do,” Amal said. “Everytime I’m with a producer, seeing what they do, it is clear to me that this is the one thing that I enjoy the most.”
“I realized I can help kids back [in Somaliland] in a different way through communication.” With only a few short months left of her time at Marist, Amal prepares to harness the world of production as a vehicle for social change. She has not seen her family since 2014, but she plans on one day returning home, equipped with the knowledge and experience to make a substantial impact on her culture. Channeling her emotions, compassion, and sociability, she hopes to someday air a real BBC Amal network.
“I do know I am going back home—at some point, I will go back home,” she said. “My hope is that within two years, I can actually change my culture.”