To the children of our Haitian orphanage:
When you do something wrong, you have to say you’re sorry. We teach you that.
But sometimes, when you grow up, you have to say you’re sorry when someone else does something wrong.
My hope is you didn’t hear this news. But there’s 47 of you, and you older ones are pretty smart.
So you may already know that the President of the United States, Donald Trump, reportedly referred to Haiti and other poor nations as “s*hole countries.”
It’s a word we don’t allow you to say. So you’re likely asking, “Why would a President use such bad language?”
That’s a good question. This leader says many things he shouldn’t. He then quickly denies them — like some of you do when caught doing something wrong. But your conscience usually leads you to apologize.
His does not.
There were enough witnesses to believe the President used that awful word in a meeting, and he clearly questioned why people from Haiti need to come here at all, and he clearly wants the small number of Haitians who sought refuge after the horrific 2010 earthquake sent back home. Seven months ago, the New York Times reported he said all Haitians “have AIDS.”
You may have heard that, too.
So I’m sorry. Because those comments might make you think that all Americans feel that way.
And that’s not true.
America is a nation of immigrants
What breaks my heart is how much I know you look up to our country. You tell me every month. You view America as this wondrous, magical land where people have safe homes, clean water, good sanitation, free schooling.
You see it as a place where sick people can get help. You watched us bring one of your sisters here, a 5-year-old named Chika, who suffered from a stage IV cancerous brain tumor. You saw how, thanks to caring people in America, she was able to live nearly two years when her prognosis was five months.
And last week, you squealed excitedly when your 6-year-old brother, Knox, got in the car with me and came to America to get treatment for his left arm and leg, which haven’t worked right since a childhood accident.
You have been Facetiming with him every night, and he’s told you about snow and fireplaces and the doctors who are donating their expertise and the rehab experts who are doing the same. And thanks to them, for the first time, Knox may be able to grip something with his left hand and put his left foot flat on the ground.
The people helping him do not think of Haiti as a “s*hole.” They know America is a nation of immigrants, that nearly all our ancestors once sought a better life and came here. And if whoever was President then had called our native countries “s*holes” and kept us out, our lives might be horribly different.
A leader doesn’t always reflect his people
So I hope you will continue to dream of America and to see the good in its citizens who travel to help you. I have been to Haiti over 100 times. I’m not sure our President has been there once. It would be nice if, instead of hurling insults, he remembered Haiti was the first free black republic in this hemisphere, that its slaves were freed before ours, that we didn’t want to deal with it for years because of that, that we once sent Marines in, took all the gold out of the Haitian reserve and brought it to the U.S., that we occupied and ruled Haiti for 19 years, and that our trade policies and support of coups and dictators cannot be separated from the tangled history of Haiti’s failed politics that have left it the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
But that would require studying. It’s easier to call names, put up walls, and act like you were born to close the door on everyone else.
Kids, America is not like that. On the eight-year anniversary of the earthquake that in 30 seconds killed nearly 3 percent of your population — and brought me to you — I pray that you remember that.
Words cannot hurt you. Even bad words. And as Haiti well knows, a leader, thankfully, doesn’t always reflect his people.
Mitch Albom has operated the Have Faith Haiti Mission/Orphanage in Port Au Prince since 2010. Its website is havefaithhaiti.org.