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‘It’s like a double sword in your heart’ — local Haitians react to Trump’s insults

Geralde Gabeau, shown in 2015, could not sleep Thursday night after President Trump’s crass dismissal of Haiti and African nations.
Geralde Gabeau, shown in 2015, could not sleep Thursday night after President Trump’s crass dismissal of Haiti and African nations.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff/Boston Globe

The men — all Somali immigrants — sipped spiced tea with ginger, cardamom, and cloves and stared at the large-screen television on the wall of Ashur Restaurant in Roxbury. There was no mistaking the news: The president of the United States had called their homeland and other African nations “shithole countries.”

They were disgusted but not shocked.

“I’m not surprised. I know this guy,” said Mohamed Yussuf, a 48-year-old parking lot attendant, as he watched CNN inside the restaurant. “Every day he wakes up and makes the problem worse. Forget this guy.”

Over at Suya Joint, an African restaurant outside Dudley Square in Roxbury, owner Cecelia Lizotte, a 36-year-old Nigerian immigrant, shook her head as she watched news coverage of the president’s remarks on her phone.


“My head hurts,” she said. “But I think, as little as I am, I’m better than him because that’s just extremely hateful.”

While the president’s remarks were condemned by many in the diplomatic and political worlds, they struck a particularly painful chord for immigrants whose homelands he denigrated.

Trump reportedly used the vulgar language to describe Haiti and African nations as he suggested during a private White House meeting Thursday that immigrants from Norway would be preferable.

“We invite him to actually go to these places and see how they are,” said Lizotte, who emigrated from Nigeria in 1999 and opened her restaurant in 2012, inspired by the rustic eatery her grandmother ran in Qua’an Pan, the village where she grew up. “He needs to travel to these places to see they are not shitholes. He’s not experienced because that’s not what they are.”

Nationwide, the African immigrant population is small but growing, having doubled every decade since 1970, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data. Massachusetts is home to more than 100,000 African immigrants, making it among the seven states with the largest African-born populations, according to Pew.


Ahmed Hassan, a 41-year-old Uber driver who emigrated from Somalia in 2005 and is preparing to take the dental boards, said he first heard Trump’s remarks while watching “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” on Thursday.

Hassan said the comments fit a longstanding pattern of Trump denigrating people of color, immigrants, and others.

“I really wasn’t surprised,” Hassan said. “He’s called McCain a loser because he was a POW, so if he feels that way about born-in-America people who he associates as American, what would he say about people who are from other places? It speaks to his base, but everybody else understands he’s textbook stupid. Nobody else needs an explanation.”

Trump on Friday denied making the vulgar remarks as he discussed immigration policy with senators.

“The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used. What was really tough was the outlandish proposal made — a big setback for DACA!” he wrote on Twitter, referring to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era policy he rescinded last year, which had shielded roughly 800,000 young people from deportation.

But Senator Dick Durbin said he was an attendee at the bipartisan meeting and “shithole” was the word used by the president, not just once but repeatedly, to describe African nations. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, called Trump’s comments “hate-filled, vile, and racist.”

Durbin also said Trump objected strongly when the discussion turned to the protections that were rescinded for immigrants from certain countries that have endured natural disasters or other devastation. In November, Trump ended the temporary protected status for approximately 59,000 Haitians who came to the United States after a devastating 2010 earthquake killed hundreds of thousands on the island nation.


“When I mentioned that fact to him, he said, ‘Haitians, do we need more Haitians?’ ” Durbin said.

Those comments hurt and angered many in Boston’s Haitian community, who noted that they were made a day before the eighth anniversary of the catastrophic earthquake.

Geralde Gabeau, executive director of Immigrant Family Services Institute in Roslindale, said she had trouble sleeping on Thursday night.

“It’s like a double sword in your heart. It is painful,” said Gabeau, who, along with more than a dozen other Haitian-American activists, held a press conference to blast Trump’s remarks on Friday.

“It’s reached a point where we say enough is enough,” she said. “It’s time for a call to action for all to stand against this barbarism, against this racism.”

Marie St. Fleur, an early-education advocate and former state representative, pointed out that one in four black children in Boston Public Schools is of Haitian descent.

“Thousands of immigrant children woke up this morning to find that [the president], the leader of the free world, has given license to have them be bullied and taunted across this country,” she said. “And on the anniversary of the earthquake, where you have over a million people displaced, over 300,000 people dead — and that’s really a conservative estimate — where over 90 percent of the buildings were destroyed, this is what you have to say?”


Natacha Clerger, Randolph’s first Haitian-American town councilor, said Trump’s divisiveness is one of the reasons she decided not to extend her military service after eight years in the Army.

“I refused . . . because I’m not going to serve under Trump,” she said. “One thing the world needs to remember is that same Haiti, which is so poor, used to prosper and contributed to American’s freedom. We facilitated the purchase of Louisiana. You need to start putting those things in the history books and in the news because kids don’t know these things.”

State Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, a first-generation Haitian-American, called Trump’s remarks “an affront to decency and to history,” and said the president “represents the last gasp of a racist worldview.”

Forry, the first woman and first person of color to represent her district in the Legislature, wrote in a statement that it was exhausting having to react to Trump’s repeated insults. “I am really getting tired of having to do this,” she wrote. “I have to express first how demoralizing and upsetting it is to have to register my outrage about hateful remarks made by my own president. And then to have to do it again. And again.”

Felicia Gans of the Globe staff contributed to this report.