Fadia Richardson had just finished dinner Thursday when she sat down to watch the news and saw a report she didn’t want to believe.
In an Oval Office meeting with lawmakers to discuss immigration policy earlier in the day, President Donald Trump reportedly questioned why the United States needs more immigrants from Haiti. When the discussion turned to Africa, Trump reportedly referred to African nations as "shithole countries" and said he wants more immigrants from countries such as Norway.
Richardson, a Haitian immigrant and retired schoolteacher who now lives in Lithia, was taken aback.
"At first, I couldn’t believe someone would say something that," said Richardson, 65, the longtime financial security secretary for the Haitian Association Foundation of Tampa Bay. "To me, it just shows ignorance because if you’re an educated person who knows what immigrants have done for this country, you wouldn’t make such a statement."
The comments have sparked a firestorm of criticism of Trump, who took to Twitter Friday to offer an apparent denial, saying he used "tough language" in the meeting "but this was not the language used."
"Never said anything derogatory about Haitians other than Haiti is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country," Trump said in another tweet.
But for Richardson and other Haitians in the Tampa Bay area, the damage was done. They joined the chorus of condemnation for a sitting president who referred to their country and others in what many see as racist terms.
"We’re outraged," said Caleb Exantus, a 26-year-old Tampa man who was born in Port Au Prince, moved to the United States with his family as a child and is now enrolled at Hillsborough Community College and the University of South Florida. "He doesn’t know how important Haiti is to America."
"It’s very racist," said Exantus, who serves as dance coordinator for USF’s Club Creole. "It’s nonsense. We are a poor country but our hearts and minds are not poor."
Trump’s reported comments likely resonate more in Florida and Tampa Bay in other places given the number of Haitians here.
U.S. Census figures from 2013 show more than 9,000 Haitians in Hillsborough County, nearly 1,500 in Pinellas County and just under 1,000 in Pasco County. The Pinellas figure is about a third higher than six years earlier; in Hillsborough and Pasco counties, the increase is more than 80 percent.
Micki Morency of Hudson said she took to Twitter and Facebook to voice her anger.
"We are crying tears of anger," said Morency, whose husband Dr. Yves Morency is a retired physician and had a practice in St. Petersburg for 30 years.
Haitian-Americans reached Friday said they were insulted by what they saw as an inference that immigrants are a burden on America. In fact, they say, the opposite is true.
Morency’s mother, who lives in St. Petersburg and attends St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, came to the United States and worked as a cook for a convent in Boston and brought her family to the United States.
All seven of her parents’ children have done well, Morency said. Brother Richard Berthelot is a police officer with the city of St. Petersburg and works as a school resource officer at St. Petersburg High School. Another brother recently retired as an engineer, and a sister, Marlene Berthelot, a former high school teacher and assisted living facility owner, now runs an orphanage in Haiti.
"We all had gone to college," Morency said. "That’s what makes me so mad. When Haitians leave Haiti and come here, we come with a purpose. We come here and we work hard."
Dr. Frederic Guerrier of St. Petersburg left Haiti at 17 in 1971, not speaking English, but 10 years later had a medical degree and has had his own practice since 1984, he said.
Trump’s preference for people from Norway doesn’t look at the untapped potential of others, said Guerrier, who has been in America for 47 years.
He said he has made a point to give back, volunteering at the St. Petersburg Free Clinic once a month since 1982. He has paid for seven children — including two of his own — to go to college through the Florida Prepaid tuition program.
There are many Haitian doctors and lawyers, but that’s just part of the story, Guerrier said.
"There are teachers, they are reporters, there are nurses, engineers … anybody who is supporting themselves, paying their mortgage, is doing great," he said. "We all have a part of making America great."
The same can be said for immigrants from Africa, said Olufunke Fontenot, who called Trump’s comments "slander" against African countries such as her native Nigeria.
"It is unfortunate that that kind of a statement comes from the president," said Fontenot, interim regional vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Fontenot, who came to the United Sates in 1989 and called herself a proud American-Nigerian citizen, emphasized that she was not speaking on behalf USF, but for was giving personal reaction.
"Of course, we all realize that people from other parts of the world, including Africa, have contributed to the political, economic and social development of the United States," she said.
"So, to slander a group of people that way not only minimizes their contributions, but shows a lack of understanding from someone who should know better."
Trump’s comments come as Haitians are already angry about his decision to order almost 60,000 Haitians — many of them from Florida — to leave the United States or adjust their immigration status by July 2019. The Trump administration’s Nov. 20 decision came after a review of the Temporary Protected Status for Haitians, who arrived after the 2010 earthquake. Trump’s announcement prompted outrage from Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
Geldine Ambroise, a senior at USF and president of the campus’ Club Creole, said she doesn’t feel it’s up to her to label Trump or his comments as racist. But they do hurt, she said, especially because they came a day before the eighth anniversary of the earthquake that devastated her native country.
"It kind of hit me hard because today’s a very hard day for me personally," she said. "My country is beautiful, it’s resilient, and our people are very strong and independent people. We work with what we have and even if we have nothing, we still work hard to better ourselves. "
To Morency, Trump’s motivation is clear.
"Right now, we in the Haitian community feel invisible. Nobody sees us," she said. "What makes us feel worse is he doesn’t want people like us. He wants people from Norway. That’s racism."
The current administration makes even Haitians with American passports afraid to speak up, Morency said. They equate the climate in America with the repression of former Haitian president François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, she said.
"I grew up in those times. I see those signs."
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.