PROVIDENCE, R.I. — President Donald Trump’s reported reference to Haiti and some African nations as “s—hole countries” drew strong protest Friday from Omar Bah, founder and executive director of the Refugee Dream Center, which provides support for a variety of Rhode Island residents who have left their native lands.
“I absolutely believe President Trump said these words,” Bah told The Providence Journal. “It is to his character. I am never surprised at what he says or does anymore. My own community, refugees, are among his first casualties both through his words and policies.”
Bah, a torture survivor and former journalist from The Gambia, in West Africa, said he was not surprised by the president’s comments, which were made during an Oval Office meeting with senators to discuss immigration reform, according to Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who was in the meeting, as well as others briefed on the conversation.
The remarks have been widely criticized by politicians and others from both parties.
Providence City Council member Nirva LaFortune, who was born in Haiti and raised in Rhode Island, said: “Our President should rebuke racist and xenophobic practices, not perpetuate them. Haiti, like many countries in the world, has been plagued by political, economic, environmental and health catastrophes. Haiti has been made vulnerable to these forces in part because it has withstood over 200 years of racism and various forms of oppression. Yet Haitians continue to be strong, resilient and powerful people. My home country has a rich, proud history, and has made significant contributions to liberate the oppressed.”
Bernard Georges, of Providence, the 31-year-old founder of New Bridges For Haitian Success, defended the rural region of Haiti where he grew up, describing it as poor but valuable, and quite beautiful, too, in many ways.
Georges grew up outside Jacmel on Haiti’s southern peninsula, where there are things of natural beauty — lush palm trees, ocean views, bright colors and the scent of frangipani. The people who live there keep their clothes just as pretty, he said.
Being clean, said Georges, is so highly valued that many people would rather go hungry than be without soap to hand-wash their clothes. For many, he says, the day begins early at 6 a.m. to tend to animals and to fishing duties.
The lofty spirit of Haitians is a distinctive quality that’s more easily felt than seen, he said, but it enhances the Haitian countryside, bringing festive sounds to music, and bright colors to art and to the sides of houses and automobiles and buses.
It is a worthwhile place, said Georges, who emphasized that the country has equipped many Haitians to bring their hard work to the United States, and to Rhode Island, and to make enormous contributions.
“President Trump’s character is diminished,” said Georges who made the journey to America when he was a teenager. “He’s unfit and unprofessional.”
Though he was not surprised by Trump’s remarks, Bah said, “this time around, he went a bit too far with such a vulgar comment against an entire set of people. This speaks to not only his racist tendencies but the fact that his understanding of what immigration means seems to be quite limited and distorted.
“His notion of immigration is an influx of people of color from underdeveloped countries. He does not seem to think of it as white people like him who might come from Canada, or Europe. Otherwise, his position would have been much different given the fact that his own wife is a naturalized immigrant still speaking English with an accent like me.”
“So this to me is unfortunate and uncalled for to have the person occupying the presidency of this great nation go so low,” said Bah, who holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and a master’s degree in public administration from Roger Williams University.
Said LaFortune: “I am disgusted that the GOP continues to tolerate hateful language and behavior from the current administration. On the eve of Martin Luther King Day in this country, I am reminded of his words: ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’ “
Central Falls Mayor James A. Diossa, whose parents came to the United States from Colombia, said that “in each generation of Americans there have always been those who attack immigrants while forgetting that their own parents or grandparents were once attacked and discriminated as well.”