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With an annual per capita income of only $900, Togo is one of the poorest countries on earth. But as one of its native sons, Hamissou Samari MPP 2012 remains hopeful that economic and political conditions in his homeland can and will improve, and he wants to be a part of the solution.
Samari left Togo as a young man, determined to pursue his education free of the threats and violence that plagued the college he had attended back home. He arrived in America in September 2003 after winning a U.S. Green Card lottery and collecting enough money from friends and family to buy a one-way airplane ticket to New York.
Although he spoke only limited English, Samari attended community college in Manhattan, working his way through school selling shoes and bus tour tickets. In 2006 he was selected as one of five inaugural recipients of Kaplan Educational Foundation Leadership Program grants.
"That's how my life just changed. …At first I was just going to community college to improve my English, get a better job, and move on with my life," Samari said. "But as soon as Kaplan came into my life things changed. I started thinking past community college and my associates [degree]. So thanks to Kaplan I got full funding to go to American University in Washington D.C."
After earning his undergraduate degree in international studies, Samari worked for NYC Service in the South Bronx. He also began applying for graduate school -- hoping to further hone his skills and passion for public service.
"When I applied for graduate school that was the first thing in my head – to really help those in need because I know what it's like to have almost nothing in your pocket, to have to face medical bills. I grew up in a very poor family. I know what it's like," he said. "So I wanted to get my degree in public policy and help shape the best policy possible, especially for poor countries like my own and for poor communities like the Bronx, and that really drove my decision to apply to public policy schools."
When he received word that he was accepted at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), Samari almost couldn't believe it.
"Me coming to the Kennedy School, I sometimes think it's a dream, not a reality. Being born to parents who never went to school, being the first generation high school graduate and the first generation college graduate, sometimes when I look back I think I'm talking about someone else, not myself," he said. "Because nothing in my socioeconomic background would have put me on to that path if it wasn't for my determination and for my combative sense of doing things, but sometimes I still feel like I'm still dreaming...It just happened like that. It is a dream come true."
And Samari says that his experience at HKS has exceeded his expectations.
"Reflecting back on the past two years I think it's been like a blessing...to be able to mingle and take classes with such well achieved people and to be a part of this strong network at the Kennedy School and Harvard in general, I could not have asked for any better experience than that," he said. "The Kennedy School has made me a better person, a better achieved person, a more driven person than I was before."
The next chapter in Samari's life journey will be written in Washington D.C. and across Africa as he joins Africare, a non-profit organization working to improve the quality of life for people in 36 countries, as an evaluation and monitoring officer.
"Coming from that part of the world I know the future of the continent as a whole really lies in agriculture, health care, and education," he says. "So I think that is the first thing I can do to really serve the continent that raised me and made me the way I am today."