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Mar 08, 2017

Baytown to Somaliland, Changing the World One Student at a Time


Marlee Burns grew up attending Trinity, Baytown, and after graduating from the University of Texas and fulfilling a Fulbright scholarship teaching in Azerbaijan, she now serves as co-head of the upper school at Abaarso School of Science and Technology in Somaliland, a self-governing region of northern Somalia.

Burns has used many opportunities to develop her skills in order to serve among young adults and have a direct effect on their futures. While completing her triple major in International Relations, Middle Eastern Studies and Plan II Honors, Burns founded a mentoring program with a local middle school, and spent two summers studying in Turkey. In 2015, worked with the White House Fellowship Program to develop leadership skills for young people. While teaching in Azerbaijan, she read about a student from the Abaarsa School who was then attending Harvard and became interested in the school.

"Growing up in the Church really set my core beliefs and my core values, particularly when it comes to serving others," Burns said. "I don't think that I'd ever be able to take a job that does not focus on helping my community (however broadly defined that may be) and that is not focused on developing the lives and potential of other people. I feel like that comes from all of the diocesan events I did as a kid, from Camp Allen, YES and Happening. It's part of what led me to a career in education, and part of what drives me to seek out places that have very few resources when it comes to educational opportunities," she said.

The mission of the school is to educate promising Somali kids and help them get into Western colleges so they can be an asset to their country. Marlee first accepted a position as a 10th and 12 grade math teacher and has is now in her second year at the school. She dresses modestly and wears a dirac or head scarf because Somaliland follows Islamic law.

“Initially, I found the headscarf to be incredibly stifling. But as the months have gone by, it’s given me an entirely new perspective on why women wear them and the importance of headscarves to Muslim and conservative women. The idea of not wearing a headscarf in public is on par with the idea of not wearing a shirt,” Burns said, noting that the local culture has been difficult to get used to. When I meet fathers of my students, only the extremely liberal men will shake my hand. But rather than it being a demeaning thing, this is intended as a sign of respect. These men respect my opinions. They listen to me and my analysis of their children,” she said. And while the culture creates distance between men and women, she is considered an equal participant. It’s actually quite counter to what I, as a young woman, have experienced in other parts of the world where I can dress as I please but people will often discount my opinions because I am young or female.”

The recent ban on Somali visas has caused much consternation at the school, Burns said. There are many students in boarding schools and universities in the U.S. All five of the students graduating this spring plan to return to Somaliland to help their country, Burns pointed out. She believes having the students’ higher education in the U.S. is good for Somaliland and for America. “They want to return to their country,” to become educators and business people.

Today, students continue to apply to American schools in the hope there will be exemptions to the ban. Current students are working with their schools and universities to be able to travel and start on time. “One of the main character traits that we emphasize here is tenacity,” Burns said. “The students know not to give up. They know to continue working hard, and to stay focused on their education despite seemingly huge setbacks.”

Her internship at the White House taught her the “power of the government to influence lives.” She is also in a position to impact many students who pepper her with questions “about the world, life, news, politics” in addition to their academics. The nearest city is 40 minutes away and requires an armed guard escort. She lives in an armed compound surrounded by barbed wire. Tenacity seems to be a character trait for Burns as well as her students.