A Yemeni family flees a war-torn nation and bets on a future in rural Appalachia

What will that future be like?

This story is part of a reporting project looking at the six-year anniversary of a public-private initiative to revive the schools and economy in McDowell County, West Virginia. It was published in partnership with the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

MCDOWELL COUNTY, W.Va. — Sadeq Hauter looks out the window of his family’s convenience store at the steep hillsides and hollows of Appalachia and is reminded of his hometown in Yemen. The difference is that here he can see a future for himself and his wife and children. He relocated them in 2015 to escape Yemen’s escalating civil war. The family opened Eller’s Quick Stop on a flat stretch of U.S. 52 in Northfork, a town of 372 in McDowell County.

Their arrival presents both a stir of hope and a challenge to a community that — like so many rural places in America — is trying to eradicate generational poverty while simultaneously adjusting to the huge economic shifts roiling the nation.

The Hauter children are the only English as a Second Language students enrolled in the McDowell County public schools, which are on the front lines of the economic efforts being led by Reconnecting McDowell, an ambitious public-private initiative. Yet the school district has been averaging triple-digit enrollment losses the past few years, according to officials, prompting a paradoxical question: Are efforts to better prepare the county’s students simply quickening their exodus and hastening the demise of the county and its way of life?

Or might the arrival of a family of newcomers hint at a new chapter for this corner of Appalachia?

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“In the last 15 to 20 years, most of the youths left,” said Elder John Hale, pastor of the Midway Shiloh Temple Pentecostal church in Keystone. “The parents, the churches, practically everybody encourages kids to leave. McDowell County is a wonderful place to retire, but it’s not a place where you can make a career or money.”

Karam Hauter, a senior at Mount View High School, says schools are better in McDowell than in his native Yemen, where his last school was bombed.

The Hauters see McDowell differently. Sadeq Hauter chose Northfork because he “likes country better than the city” and saw the gas station and store as a sound investment. And so far he’s been pleased with his choice. Though McDowell County has no English as a Second Language teachers to help his children adjust that “was the only one problem.” In fact, Hauter said he was happy with the schools. From his perspective, “education here is better” than home, despite McDowell’s test scores being the worst in West Virginia.

His 15-year-old son, Karam, agrees, although adjusting to McDowell was overwhelming. At first, he said, “I don’t know what I was doing.” Karam, and his sister Malak, 17, along with their mother and a younger sister in elementary school, came to McDowell from Yemen through Djibouti, the French- and Arabic-speaking country on the Horn of Africa. The Hauters have a total of six children: Karam’s older brother, Reemi, was already here with their father; another older sister, who is married, lives outside the United Sates; a fourth sister was born this summer.

In contrast to his school in Yemen, which was bombed, destroying all the Hauter children’s school records, Karam said “the school here is bigger than there,” and students, not teachers, change classes when the bell rings.

When Karam and Malak first arrived, their halting English was sprinkled with Britishisms like “petrol” for gas and “bonnet” for the hood of a car, according to Daniel Phillips, an art teacher at Mount View High School, who had them in class. “They seemed a little lost,” he said. Phillips has taught school in McDowell for 39 years, 20 of them as a special education teacher. He said that he used his special education training, along with Google translation and what he had learned helping his Slovakian grandmother navigate English, to help the Hauters interpret their new surroundings.

And now they’re thriving, according to their teachers and a school counselor. “I had to learn English here,” said Karam in his heavily accented blend of British English, native Arabic and West Virginia’s own distinct dialect, known as Appalachian English. “I was shy. But I’m not shy anymore. If I don’t know something, I try … or ask my friends show me what it is.”

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Karam Hauter and his brother, Reemi Hauter, at work in their family’s convenience store in McDowell County.

His sister Malak, who dresses in long sleeves and skirts and covers her head with a hijab, understands English well, but isn’t comfortable speaking it. Her language is improving, though, thanks to an unexpected source — the school district’s Career and Technology Center, which has provided her with Rosetta Stone language software and a tutor. She’s talked about becoming a dentist, an acute need in McDowell where children have “rampant tooth decay,” according to a local dental hygienist. With her less-than-proficient English preventing her from pursuing that career path for now, she’s exploring early childhood education at the career center. She was part of a group of high school students who visited the superintendent in his office in September, where he expressed McDowell’s needs for childcare centers and for students like her to return after college to fill dozens of teacher vacancies.

While many people here are focusing on the prospect of a coal mining resurgence to buoy the county’s moribund economy, the schools and government are actually now the top employers in the county. “The facts and data do not support that McDowell is a coal mining economy,” Kris Mallory, former project coordinator for Reconnecting McDowell told a meeting of the Reconnecting McDowell partnership in May. Mining accounted for less than 10 percent of jobs in the county according to 2014 numbers compiled by the state government, behind other fields like education and health care, retail and government jobs. The McDowell school district was the No. 1 employer, followed by the emergency hospital in Welch. “Look deeper, education is driving this economy,” Mallory said.

The number of mining jobs in the county jumped from 450 in the fourth quarter of 2016 to 715 in the second quarter of this year, however, and coal mining now accounts for approximately 16 percent of all jobs. While that growth is significant, much further growth isn’t expected, said John Deskins, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University.

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That’s not necessarily the news people here want to hear. But economists like Deskins say that diversification is the key to stabilizing any economy, and that businesses that produce in the county but sell outside the region are necessary to make a more economically viable community. However, even he acknowledges that he’s not certain what will work for McDowell. “What it really takes is entrepreneurs to try new things, and entrepreneurs will find what works and what doesn’t work.” Those new entrepreneurs must be developed in the schools, Deskins said. “The economy never will be able to attract businesses unless it has educated, healthy workers.”

The leaders of Reconnecting McDowell have taken note. The county needs to integrate more “entrepreneurship education opportunities into K-12 education and career and technology,” Mallory said. Reconnecting McDowell is encouraging agribusiness development, including small local farms that grow vegetables for schools and farm-to-table restaurants (or even that grow medical marijuana), and ecotourism development, to take advantage of the county’s wildlife management areas and the rugged Hatfield-McCoy Trail system.

“The things that draw young people to Colorado, we certainly have in abundance in southern West Virginia,” said Gayle Manchin, secretary of the state’s Department of Education and the Arts and a past president of the West Virginia Board of Education, who now chairs Reconnecting McDowell. To spur change, the public-private initiative made college and career readiness one of its planks and staff from the district’s Career and Technology Center were named to the subcommittee charged with addressing it.

The center gives students the chance to attain the skills and credentials they’ll need to be eligible to work those new jobs, while instilling a mindset to help them succeed, said Manchin. “The message it sends is that the more education you get, the better the job.”

State law requires school districts to offer career and technical education, but districts have flexibility in selecting which programs to offer. Katie Linkous, school counselor for McDowell’s center, said that it has focused on 13 programs to help meet the needs of employers and the community, particularly in health care, education, and law and public safety. Linkous credits Reconnecting McDowell with “bringing career and technology to the forefront in [the] county,” giving greater exposure to what the center offers residents. “We have to recruit students and let them know what they can gain from coming here,” she said. “It’s not something a counselor can make them do.”

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A “Revitalize Appalachia” sign hangs in downtown Welch, the McDowell County seat.

With local labor market data showing health care workers “always in top demand,” according to Linkous, the center’s Therapeutic Services program is teaching students skills they can use for entry-level health care jobs or to advance into the center’s licensed practical nursing program, open to adult students only. Linkous said she has had students accept job offers before graduation. Other programs include Early Childhood Education; Pro Start Restaurant Management, which encompasses the farm-to-table movement; Power Equipment Systems, for ATV and UTV repairs; Computer Systems, including a course in computer coding, applications and game design; and Machine Tool Technology and Welding for those thinking of working in the mines.

While the center doesn’t have its own entrepreneurship program, its staff attended a training and integrated elements of that curriculum into their own courses, Linkous said. The center also recently introduced its own mentorship program, Mirror Image, in which students who show an entrepreneurial spirit mentor eighth-graders. The older kids build leadership skills and give their young counterparts an early taste of the career training program.

Located in the former Vocational Center building in Welch, the county seat, the center is open to all 11th- and 12th-graders in the district. According to Linkous, some 200 students — roughly half of the 407 eligible — attend programs that take one or two years to complete. Participation has been steady over the last couple of years even as the county’s numbers of high school juniors and seniors dropped. Students enrolled at the center receive graduation credits alongside the certifications and credentials in their programs of study, and the center is working on memorandums of understanding with Bluefield State College to accept credits from its Law and Public Safety and Careers in Education programs.

All of the state’s career centers are modeled as simulated workplaces or microbusinesses in which students get to name a company, rotate through job titles, learn to dress appropriately for those jobs and take random mandatory drug tests as required by the state and requested by employers, Linkous explained.

A student in Chasity Kennedy’s class completes an assignment.

“First and foremost what we hear from employers is [they want] a clean drug test,” she said. “Requiring that has been really helpful in instilling in a kid’s brain that that’s what the workplace requires. Knowing they passed the drug test is a confidence booster for them. It’s something to be proud of in an area that has a lot of drug abuse.”

The center boasts a 95 percent job placement rate among its graduates, meaning that they’re either working in their program field (generally within the county) or have gone on to college or enlisted in the military, Linkous said.

Whether the center’s success will make a difference is uncertain. The school district has lost 479 students since Reconnecting McDowell’s launch in 2011, including 144 this school year. With enrollment losses come budget cuts and teacher layoffs, and the Career and Technology Center is not immune.

Many students, like those in Chasity Kennedy’s honors English class at River View High School, already have big plans for their future that don’t involve staying in McDowell. Fifteen-year-old Breanna Poor plans on becoming a surgeon and “would like to get out of West Virginia for a while.” Her classmate Blake Lockhart, 15, wants to attend Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, possibly to become a biomedical engineer “making prosthetics and helping out the veterans for what they’ve done.” And Kennedy’s son, Colton, 15, said he’d join the Army, “serving wherever they need me.”

But Kristen Calhoun, 15, said she “wants to go to college of her own free will and be what I want.” And she wants to come back to teach in River View’s math department and “give the kids an idea that they are able to do whatever they want to do. And, that they have to work for it no matter how much is against them.” And while Karam Hauter said he’d like to visit other states and attend college for accounting, he plans to come back to McDowell to live and help his father and older brother run the gas station and store.

Interpreting for his sister Malak, he said that she, too, wants to visit other states, but return to McDowell to be with their family. Asked what she likes about her home here, she replied that she “feels safer here” and “likes the people.” Here is “more nice than back home.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.


Peggy Barmore

Peggy Barmore is a freelance writer, living in Albany, NY. She is a 2014 graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and holds a… See Archive

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