Yael Abouhalkah On Leaving Kansas City And Journalism For The Peace Corps

Aug 4, 2017

Yael Abouhalkah
Credit Jen Chen / KCUR 89.3

Last fall, after he was laid off from The Kansas City Star, Yael Abouhalkah did what many journalists do: he started a blog and continued to cover local and national politics.

That is, until couple of weeks ago, when he announced that he and his wife are heading to Namibia to be Peace Corps volunteers.

They’re leaving mid-August for a 27-month stint in southwest Africa.

“We will be English teachers,” he told host Gina Kaufmann on KCUR’s Central Standard.

“We did a little bit of English as a Second Language at our church,” he said. “As it turns out, in the Peace Corps, that’s about all that we’re qualified to do. We’re not educators, we’re not farmers, we’re not doctors. But we can, we hope, teach English pretty well.”

Abouhalkah had been a fixture at The Star for 37 years. He spent 32 of those years as an editorial writer, where he often ruffled feathers. Then-mayor Emanuel Cleaver II wanted him fired, he said.

More recently, he’s gotten into dust-ups with Sam Brownback and Kris Kobach.

“Obviously, I was not the only person who was pointing out some of the stuff, but it did get me a lot of national attention,” he said.

Newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and The New York Times started paying attention to what he and his colleagues were writing here.

“That’s because they had become national stories,” he said. “And in a way, that’s kind of nice to do. But then later in the week, I’d be writing about a very local issue which only people in Independence, Missouri, really cared about, so that kind of keeps you grounded.”

During his career, he’s also fought for open government.

In the 1990s, when there was talk about tearing down Union Station, The Star’s editorial board (and other groups) got behind saving it. But then, after it had been saved, the city wanted to spend public money in private, he said.

“That became a big brouhaha in the civic community,” he said.

He was tough on the issue; it’s one of the things that The Star has always fought for, Abouhalkah said.

“We’ve had times where we discover something was done in private, and more than likely, it was not done correctly,” he added.

In the Peace Corps, Abouhalkah realizes that he’ll have to tread lightly. He’ll be representing the United States 24-7, he said.

And, as a teacher, he’ll have to wear a tie — something he hasn’t done in 40-some-odd years.

He’s also hoping to be more outgoing.

“Believe or not, I’m actually reserved sometimes,” he said.

“I’m going to be talking to people who are different from myself … but you’re going to realize that yeah, they’re human beings and they’re having a life that I need to see from a different point of view,” he said.

As for his blog, he said he’ll see if he can write from Africa at some point. But for now, it’s all hands on deck learning a new language, he said.

The best part, he said, was realizing that there’s life after work … and even life outside of Kansas City.

“Life will go on without you, City Hall will continue to go and Kris Kobach will or won’t win the governorship, and other people will write about that,” he said.

“Of course, I still care, probably tremendously, about it,” he added. “But over 44 years of journalism, I did a lot of that. And you do realize, ‘oh, maybe there’s something else to do.’

“And in this case, I get to do it with my wife, and that’s great.”

Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at jen@kcur.org.