Rony Ponthieux hasn’t had too much time to be angry about Donald Trump calling Haiti a “shithole”. As a nurse working the night shift at Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital, he’s too busy saving lives.
Jean Monestime, the first Haitian American elected to the Miami-Dade county commission, is insulted: in response to the Oval Office outburst that drew worldwide condemnation, she calls Trump a liar, a racist and a bigot.
What the two have in common is hard work to build lives for themselves and their families since arriving in the US as poor young migrants, and a strong desire to continue giving back to the country that welcomed them in.
“We are proud to contribute to this great nation’s social, economic and political fabric,” said Ponthieux, 49, who travelled to the US from Port-au-Prince in 1999, a year before his wife, Marjorie. Both could face deportation in July 2019 after the Trump administration’s decision in November to end temporary protected status (TPS) for about 58,000 Haitians.
“We came to the US to seek refuge and live the American dream,” he said. “We were able to go to school, to learn and speak English, get a profession and work. We have two children born in the US, a house, a job. We pay taxes and as a nurse I am taking care of the sick and saving the lives of many. I dedicate myself to help my community.
“TPS recipients in general are hardworking people. They are not a burden for the government because they are not on welfare.”
Monestime, 54, has similarly pledged himself to paying back a debt of gratitude he says he owes a country that provided opportunities unimaginable in Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.
“I came here alone at the age of 17 and I put myself through school,” he said. “I drove a cab in college to pay my dues because I wasn’t qualified for a student loan, and when my grades weren’t good enough for a scholarship.
“I started a business with few dollars in my pocket and help from family and friends, that’s grown exponentially. It’s helped me put two sons through college and live the American middle-class dream, unlike Mr Trump who was given a million dollars by his father and went bankrupt several times. I think mine is probably a more successful story, considering how low on the economic ladder I came from.”
Monestime, a former public school teacher, has a masters degree in business and entrepreneurship, graduated from the senior executives in state and local government programme at Harvard and has his own real estate and business consultancies. All this, he says, has allowed him to open doors for others.
He has also served two terms as a county commissioner, including two years as chairman, has worked as an adjunct professor in management and has served community groups including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition.
“The most important thing in our culture,” he said, “is not just education but the ability to sustain your life with integrity, with the commitment to community and with the ability to help others.”
For many among south Florida’s 300,000-strong Haitian American population, the largest in the US, Trump’s actions and words, including reportedly stating that Haitian immigrants “all have Aids”, have stoked only fear and anger. About 24,000 from the region will lose TPS protection unless Congress can agree a deal as part of the discussions that led to the president’s “shithole” outburst.
Ponthieux said the last few months had been especially stressful for Marjorie, who is in nursing school, and their children Christopher, 17, and Christina, 10, US citizens both.
Ponthieux does his best to reassure them. “If I have to move we will all move together,” he said. “[But] I have faith that a permanent solution will come out before that date.
“I forgive Donald Trump for his disrespectful remarks. I ask God to forgive him too. Regardless of the colour of our skin or the place we come from we are all children of God. I will keep him in my prayers so God can change the hate of his heart and put some love, not racism.”
Monestime is less forgiving, but adamant that the contribution of Haitians must not be overshadowed by “hatred” from the White House.
“Mr Trump has proven over and over again that he’s inconsistent, he’s a liar, a racist, a bigot, but nevertheless I don’t think any of us in the Haitian community, even though we are insulted, will ever choose to go as low as he has gone,” he said.
“This is a country where everybody has an opportunity and if you dream big you achieve big things. One of my mentees came from Haiti at age 12, 11 years ago, and today is a certified public accountant with a masters degree at 21. Look at the West Point graduate who came after the earthquake to serve the US and became an officer.
“These are some of the stories, so many professors, teachers, college deans and presidents, who are giving back. That is what this country is about. This country’s spirit cannot be conveyed on a typical comment made by Mr Trump. This is what we live by as immigrants. We survived segregation, we will survive Mr Trump.”
Marleine Bastien is executive director of the advocacy group Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami (Haitian Women of Miami). She said: “To hear a US president who purports to be a model and leader for us to use language like that to describe our nation is cruel and beyond understanding.
“In the war of independence our ancestors fought and died for America, we’ve built cities, contributed since the early 1600s, and keep giving and giving. We are telling our children, our young leaders, to stand and keep their heads up high.”