SOMALIA-CANADA: Forgiveness in scholarships

Eleven young Somali women, who did not have the means to go to university and who all want to use their education to help their troubled country, are on track to undergraduate degrees and attending classes this semester thanks to the efforts of a Canadian woman who had been brutally held captive in their country.

Amanda Lindhout, who was covering the region as a journalist, was abducted in August 2008 along with Australian photojournalist Nigel Brennan. She was held for 15 months, had been beaten, barely fed and was left alone in a series of dark rooms. She and Brennan were released after a reported C$600,000 ransom was paid.

Lindhout, who spoke to University World News, expressed no animosity toward the dozen teenage boys who were responsible for her captivity. With her goal to raise C$400,000 (US$398,000) to send 100 Somali women to university, she mentions the teenage boys only in the context of educational opportunity and how they would not have become kidnappers had their mothers gone to university.

In fact, Lindhout was adamant to keep the article's thrust away from her ordeal and on the scholarship programme, focussing on Somalia's needs, the hopefulness and the great efforts she's seen from the Somali diaspora who have been helping her achieve her goal, and the 11 women whose hardships are now slightly lightened by the scholarship money that will cover tuition fees and living expenses for four years.

While the country has suffered from lawlessness ever since its government fell in 1991, it does have 23 active universities, many of which have been built by the Somali diaspora who also pay for the tuition of many individual students.

Lindhout says many former Somalians have inspired her as they talk so hopefully about their homeland, which has a rich tradition of poetry and music, and many have travelled back, risking their lives to help educate women.

"These are dangerous jobs," she says of those whose work is "not aligned with the ideology of the extremist groups who control southern Somalia."

And why did she target women for these scholarships? "To have real change, you have to ignite leadership. I want to help give women a leadership voice."

Her first step was to seek the advice of Hussein Warsame, an active Somali-Canadian and a professor at the University of Calgary in her home province.

Living n Canada since 1986, he has remained involved in Somalian education, having helped rejuvenate higher education in Somalia after the collapse of its government in 1991. In 1998, he and others helped found Amoud University in the autonomous region of Somaliland.

While Lindhout was being held captive, Warsame had rallied many Somali-Canadians to try and get information that could lead to her release. He had also got in touch with her family and, when she came home, organised a celebration.

So, not long after her ordeal, she talked to him about how she wanted to set up a scholarship fund. She found him open to the idea. "He's a big believer in education as a way for Somalis to transform themselves," said Lindhout.

According to Warsame, only 25% of girls in Somalia receive primary school education, with only 28% of those girls going onto secondary school and then only 4% of its female high school graduates going onto university.

Lindhout set up a foundation called the Global Enrichment Fund and began to tell her story and the story of Somalian women to Canadian church groups, rotary clubs and other gatherings where she could raise money.

While it's difficult to dredge up details about her 15 months of deprivation, which included an attempted escape and recapture, she continues to speak around the country, while also studying at university. "I'm grateful for the platform." By the summer she had raised enough money to begin sponsoring the first cohort of students.

She and Warsame got word out to several Somalian universities and both lined up interviews with the BBC and Voice of America, which broadcast radio programmes to Somalia. They eventually received names of potential students, who were asked to send essays, all of which talked of both hardship and hope.

One of the women was Amira (not her real name). In 2006, when she was 15, she suffered a head injury from a mortar blast and a year later was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is healthy now and told the foundation that with her scholarship she hopes to bring environmental change to a country that might be more known for its high-sea pirates but also has shores and streets that need to be cleaned up, which she hopes to work on.

Before 18-year-old Najma (also a pseudonym) was born, her father lost her job during the collapse of the Somali government. Her family became nomads and when she was born she had no opportunities for education. She and her seven siblings also struggled to find clean water, food and healthcare. Luckily, when she moved to the city, she found sponsorship to attend school. With this scholarship she is planning to work with youth to give them the skills to create and find work.

Aurelia Uarsama, a researcher at the University of Alberta who was born in Somalia, spoke to each woman by telephone for 30 minutes, explaining the scholarships to them and getting to know them a bit more.

Uarsama loved hearing the background sounds of chickens or mothers cooking, saying it took her right back to her childhood in Somalia. She said many of the women she spoke with had no basic services but spoke eloquently about attending university.

Uarsama had joined the project after hearing about Lindhout's initiative. "I admired how she transformed her negative experience to help women in Somalia," and added that the experience has given her a renewed interest in her country and will also help Somali-Canadian scholarship.

Hussein Warsame has seen much hope from his fellow Somali-Canadians, all inspired by Lindhout's generosity of spirit and gift of education: "All we were hoping for was for her to forgive Somalis, in general. None of us expected for her to set up a programme to help Somali women."

To send a donation to the scholarship fund, which has not yet reached its goal, please click here