This Rural Teacher is Working to Bridge Divides Between Migrant Workers and Her Community
Two hours into Amy Fabbri’s English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) class, Marie’s exhaustion slowly began to show. First, her fingers gave her away, as she gently used them to cover her eyes, like temporary blinds. And then, later, she leaned her head into her left hand, the nearest pillow she could find, while the rest of class carried on.
“They work all night at the factory, and then they come to English class in the morning,” Fabbri said of her students. “They are really exhausted, but they are really dedicated.”
Marie, like most of her classmates, works on the night shift at Pilgrim’s Pride’s fresh food processing plant in Moorefield. There, nearly half a million chickens are slaughtered every 24 hours, according to the company’s fact sheet. Marie plays a small role in that process. In return, she receives a low, but decent-enough wage that has allowed her to start over since immigrating to the U.S. from her home country of Haiti in 2010, after a devastating earthquake killed more than 220,000 people.
Three days a week, after she’s worked all night long, Marie chooses learning over sleep to attend Fabbri’s three-hour morning class. She walks to get there. In her 60s, Marie is one of the oldest members of the group. Sometimes her classmates are as young as 17.
She learns conversational English, how to conjugate verbs and sound out words. Marie begins her lessons every class by filling in the blanks to sentences Fabbri has written on the chalkboard. On a chilly February morning, after Marie is finished, her paper will read, “Today is Wednesday, February 27, 2019. Yesterday was Tuesday. Tomorrow will be Thursday.”
For many of Fabbri’s students, who often arrive with little to no English, attending class isn’t about learning how to write perfect sentences. It’s about learning how to survive, how to talk with their child’s teacher or ask questions at the post office. In this rural West Virginia town of less than 2,500 residents, people moving from other countries have primarily been met with extremely limited foreign language services. It’s proven especially challenging in the court system and when parents are trying to register their children for school. But it’s not just the paperwork hurdles that make moving to a place like Moorefield, West Virginia hard.
Within the current political climate, where the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border enforcement has led to dentention centers filled with children and has placed travel-ban restrictions on seven nations, five being majority-Muslim, both residents from Moorefield and their new neighbors are finding more reasons to stay within their own circles and little incentive for crossing ethnic and cultural boundaries.
Thankfully, there are some folks working to bridge that divide.
Amy Fabbri didn’t think she’d return to a place she so intentionally left. But love will make you do a lot of things. And for Fabbri it made her move back to the Moorefield and Petersburg area so her son, Caleb, didn’t have to travel so far from Maryland to see his dad. He could complete high school in West Virginia and have both of his parents in the stands to cheer him on at tennis meets.
Returning in 2015, Fabbri found Moorefield a different place than what she’d left in the early 2000s. There was now a Burmese church, a Hispanic church and an authentic Honduran and El Salvadorian restaurant all within town limits. Driving down Main Street, Fabbri noticed there was a lot more foot and bike traffic. She noticed families walking to Walmart, which sits on the northern edge of town.
“Moorefield people don’t walk anywhere. Everybody drives,” said Chris Claudio, who grew up in Moorefield and lives there today. “Even though our town is only a mile or two across … everybody drives.”
Fabbri observed for a while, but in 2016, after Donald Trump ran his political campaign on nativist ideology with promises of building a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border and then won the election, she was ready to take action.
She worked with West Virginia Catholic Charities, the only refugee resettlement agency in West Virginia, and connected with a missionary, Obed, from Puerto Rico who was sent to Moorefield to offer Bible studies, translation services and support to the town’s Hispanic population.
“During the election and right after … I said, ‘I want to think of a way where I can let this community know that there are people that are really glad they are here,’” Fabbri said.
Together, the pair began hosting a community potluck at the Moorefield Presbyterian Church as a way to bring refugee, immigrant and longtime Moorefield residents together.
“Truthfully, we didn’t get a lot of local people coming to these events,” Fabbri said. The potlucks have stopped for now. Obed returned to Puerto Rico. Fabbri began teaching English. But she still tries to use opportunities in her daily life to advocate for understanding in often simple ways, like defending a Spanish speaking family at the grocery store.
Sometimes, Fabbri said, it can feel like she lives on an island.
In many ways Moorefield has become a microcosm where globalization and a diversifying workforce collides with national, nativist political rhetoric.
“We’re living in a current political moment where immigration has been really politicized,” said Cynthia Gorman, assistant professor of geography at West Virginia University. “I think both documented and undocumented legal migrants are being really villified and demonized. So a lot of people are persuaded by that rhetoric.”
Gorman’s work in refugee resettlement has brought her to Moorefield recently. She’s working to try and better understand “how community dynamics are affected when ICE takes particular kinds of actions in smaller communities where there are meat processing facilities that rely on migrant workers.”
On April 16, 2008, ICE agents raided Pilgrim’s Moorefield location, arresting more than 100 employees. It was one of five Pilgrim’s plants raided that day. In total, more than 400 hourly, non-management employees were arrested, detained, separated from their families and dispersed to immigrant detention centers.
Understanding the 2008 ICE raid might very well help to explain how Hardy County Schools has become the most diverse school system in West Virginia.
Pilgrim’s need to replace its workforce after the raid is what brought many Eritrean refugees to Moorefield, said Elizabeth Ramsey, an immigration and refugee specialist at West Virginia Catholic Charities. Ramsey explained, Pilgrim’s hired a recruiting or “head hunting” firm following the raid. The company discovered that a refugee resettlement agency was shutting down in North Carolina, leaving several Eritrean refugees without any formal support, so they decided to step in.
“So that’s how a lot of the Eritreans got to West Virginia. They were recruited by this agency,” Ramsey said.
“I feel like the people [in the community] that have a problem with it think that for some reason people in remote areas all around the world decided to come to Moorefield, West Virginia,” Claudio said. “… Clearly the company is the total influence on that decision.”
Unlike many large manufacturing companies who have found it more cost effective to shift their production outside of the U.S., “some industries — like poultry — have figured out how to bring the global labor force to them,” writes Dr. Angela Stuesse, in her 2016 book, “Scratching out a Living.” Steusee spent years in Mississippi studying the poultry industry’s recruitment of Latin American immigrants in the South.
“It is not a coincidence,” Stuesse writes, “that poultry corporations have chosen to locate their processing facilities in some of the most remote areas of the South.”
Residents in Moorefield rely on the poultry industry, which, in turn, relies on migrant labor. It’s creating a push and pull in a place where three out of four Hardy County voters chose Donald Trump as their president in 2016.
In a place with limited employment opportunities, Claudio said he’s heard many local residents ask, “Why did they have to choose here?” It’s the same reason we work there, Claudio said.
“Everybody is trying to find a way to live and do better.”
When Zaam and Man get off from work, the house is still warm from their children. The couple, who work night shift in Pilgrim’s chicken breast deboning department, get home 20 minutes after their two youngest have already boarded the bus for school, and most of the time they miss their oldest, Julia, who has already left for her classes at Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical College.
On the days that Zaam and Man attend Fabbri’s morning English class, they skip sleeping in the morning to, instead, sleep in the afternoon and evening, which often means they’ll miss dinner with their kids. Sometimes they miss seeing them all together, waking up for night shift after their children are already asleep.
But compared to the alternative, staying in Myanmar or living in the U.S. away from his family, which Zaam did for three years, he’ll take working at Pilgrim’s any day.
Zaam doesn’t talk much about why he left Myanmar. But it’s clear it wasn’t a place he felt supported his health or the health of his family.
“Everybody that is a refugee,” said Zaam, “[our] country’s government is no good.”
“I like the Moorefield,” he said. “It’s easy, not noisy. It’s good. Safe.”
“Probably all of them have experienced some kind of trauma,” Fabbri said of her students. “I know to learn you have to feel comfortable and safe.”
So Fabbri has worked to make her classroom feel like a cozy cabin. Some of the walls are lined in wood paneling. Green house plants poke out of corners. The smell of fresh coffee greets you at the door, a special treat for weary hands to wrap around.
“We want the space to feel comfortable and safe,” Fabbri said of her English classroom.“I’d say it’s almost like a little family.”
Credit Justin Hayhurst / 100 Days in Appalachia
Every morning, when her students arrive, they bend down to sign in on a paper that sits underneath a string of Christmas lights and colorful flags.
Every student’s flag is on the wall. There are 11 total, a symbol of Moorefield’s growth and a way for Fabbri to tell her students, “Welcome.”
Part One of Always Hiring explores how a town of less than 2,500 became one of the most diverse places in West Virginia and what the poultry industry has to gain from its diversified workforce.