Home Among the Hills
It was after the 2016 presidential election and Appalachia was being characterized as poor and white. We found college students who were immigrants or whose parents immigrated to the region and amplified their voices.
Hometown: Hurricane, W.Va.
This spring, the WVU Muslim Students Association held the Hijabi Monologues, where Muslim women who choose to wear a headscarf – or choose not to – shared their experiences and decisions with the audience.
Jana El-Khatib was the only one not wearing a hijab.
“I think people have misconceptions both about people who wear the hijab and also about people who don’t wear the hijab,” she said. “They look at someone who doesn’t wear it and they immediately think, ‘Oh she’s not religious,’ or ‘She’s not a practicing Muslim.’ But I think that’s incorrect. You can still be into your faith without having to wear the hijab. You can make it up in different ways within the faith.”
For El-Khatib, not wearing it was a choice she made at this point in her life. Some in her family do wear it, such as an aunt. Others don’t. They’re all still Muslim.
“The hijab is a symbol of modesty to me,” she said. “I really respect it. And I really have a lot of respect for everyone that wears it, especially in the U.S. where wearing it … you’re putting up that risk of maybe someone saying something to you, getting a weird look.”
El-Khatib, a rising junior and Honors College student who is leaning toward a career in counseling, grew up in Hurricane, W.Va., where there was only one other Arab family. She went to the mosque in Charleston where there was Islamic school every Sunday. There, they celebrated Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, and Eid al-Adha, which marks Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac.
She remembers when she would fast until nightfall during Ramadan and her classmates would ask why she wasn’t eating at lunch.
“They’d be like, ‘Don’t you eat?’ ‘How are you not dead?’” she recounted with a chuckle.
Some wanted to know if it was OK for them to eat next to her. It was, she assured them. Most of her classmates were supportive. She was a Muslim they interacted with regularly. She was there at homecoming and football games when the whole town gathered together. Everyone knew each other, and she knew that if she ever needed anything, her friends’ parents would be right there to help.
“I feel like I could go to anyone, and they would be so nice and supportive and generous,” she said.
El-Khatib’s father is from Egypt and left in his 20s after he finished his medical degree in psychiatry.
“When he came here, he had a lot of struggles with finding a residency that would take a foreign medical graduate,” she said. “... He’d be working at McDonald’s with a medical degree just for the fact that he couldn’t find a residency.”
But he ultimately did find one – in West Virginia – and he now works as a psychiatrist in Charleston.
El-Khatib’s mother is from Lebanon, which she fled because of the civil war that started in 1975 and didn’t end until 1990. By the end of the war, it’s estimated that 120,000 had died and nearly one million people left the country.
During the 2016-17 winter break, El-Khatib visited Lebanon, where the cliffs form a stark contrast to the Mediterranean Sea. She visited Egypt several times when she was younger, but hasn’t been back since the 2011 revolution.
Her three older siblings all attended WVU, and her older sister, Farrah, was a Fulbright Scholar in 2014. During Farrah’s time in Malaysia, Jana visited her and got to discover their food, language and clothing.
El-Khatib is interested in others’ cultures and gets to learn so much at WVU, where she’s a conversation partner in the Intensive English program. She speaks English with students, who are mostly Arabic – from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Syria – but who have different cultural backgrounds, dialects and experiences.
She feels the tug from West Virginia, her home, and the tug from Egypt and Lebanon, the places where her parents learned their shared culture. She describes home as a place where you’re welcome, safe and have opportunities.
“In that sense,” she says, “I would say West Virginia is my home, especially WVU.”