Two locals plan a way to change the lives of Africa’s young women.
Thursday, December 23, 2010
O n July 4, 2007, Suad Ali met Robert Pacelli at a barbecue in Monterey, 15 years and continents away from the first time their paths crossed.
Back then Ali, now a Monterey resident, was a young Somali refugee living in a camp in Nairobi, Kenya. Pacelli, who lives in Pacific Grove, was a U.N. refugee agency worker making a documentary about the camps.
“We sat down and watched the video,” Pacelli says. “We were there at the same place at the same time, which created a phenomenal bond.”
Their second meeting also catalyzed a vision that will send both of them back: The African Women’s Leadership Academy (AWLA), a proposed boarding school for girls in Kenya. In a place and time where girls are rarely able to attend secondary school, AWLA will provide that education—plus leadership training Ali believes will translate to wide impact for local communities.
“Young women are the future of Africa,” she says. “If you teach a man in Africa, you teach an individual. If you teach a woman, you teach a community.”
Pacelli—a longtime local who has shot video for CNN, Discovery Channel and local stations—is mapping out a documentary designed to raise awareness of the gender gap in African education and money to seed the school.
In 1992, Suad Ali had to say goodbye to her home, friends and country. She and her family left northern Somalia indefinitely to travel by truck to the border of Kenya to seek refugee status.
Suad remembers only one thing clearly about the day they left her home at age 16: Her father’s eyes. “My dad felt like he had failed as a parent,” she says.
According to The Mission of U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, her plight was not unique. Some 420,000 other people also fled Somalia that year alone because of civil war, drought and famine.
Ali and her family lived in a refugee camp waiting to get political asylum from the United States, which can be a long process, requiring a declaration by the U.N. that a group qualifies and sponsorship by an NGO.
Conditions in those camps only made the wait feel longer, with families taking shelter in burlap tents, sharing very small amounts of food and water amid the threat of sexual assault.
“It was horrific,” says Pacelli, who was filming when Ali arrived. “There was no ground water, there was famine and people were dying.”
When asked to describe the conditions, Ali doesn’t want to go there. “The memories are too painful,” she says.
Thankfully, Ali was ultimately granted asylum. But she would be separated from her nine siblings.
Undaunted, she seized the opportunity she never had, and the one she wants to give others. She obtained a green card and student loans and ultimately earned a degree is business administration from Santa Clara University.
“I was driven and I knew what I wanted,” she says, “but I was able to succeed because someone helped me. I was saved.”
Now Ali, an accountant at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, finds herself in a position to help. Her academy would provide the last two years of secondary school, a time when most girls drop out due to financial restrictions and the pressure to start families.
She dreams of admitting one girl from each of the 54 African countries. She believes the region suffers because its countries’ leaders are out of touch. “The people on the top in Africa don’t get along,” she says. “But if we educate girls, our future leaders, they will better understand the soul of a person from another country.”
The AWLA recently acquired its official nonprofit status. Ali is reaching out to foundations focused on the global community, health and education. She’s started informally recruiting teachers (50 percent Western and 50 percent African), talking with several locals who are interested in taking a one-year sabbatical to help launch the school. The next step: Ali and Pacelli will interview girls ages 16-19 from all over Africa about their school experience, leadership skills and which women inspire them.
“There will not be a problem finding girls to participate,” she says, “because the need is there.”
These interviews will be compiled into the documentary, scheduled to screen in Monterey in 2011.
“Most people would not believe the determination of these girls,” Ali says. “They face the challenges of elders who want them to get married, boys who make them feel inferior, chores that leave no time for study, and limited resources. And they still want to learn.
“And the people of Monterey can be a part of that transformation,” Ali continues, “They just need to believe in these girls and help them get a chance.”