NASSAU, Bahamas — She fled Haiti after a violent earthquake destroyed her home for the promise of a better life in the Bahamas.
“I would like for somebody to help me and my baby,” said Altima, 39, as her 2-year-old son, Berkley, played inside a Haitian church in Nassau. “I don’t have any place to go and nobody here.”
Haitians are the largest minority group in this nation of 400,000 people. By some estimates, they make up as much as one-fifth of the population. The country has long relied on their labor — and debated whether and how to grant them citizenship.
Many remain undocumented and vulnerable: Dorian flattened shantytowns such as the Mudd and the Peas on Great Abaco Island, killing dozens and leaving thousands homeless.
In the wake of Dorian, the Bahamian government has suspended deportations of victims from the Abacos and Grand Bahama. Prime Minister Hubert Minnis has declared that all services will be provided to all victims.
“The prime minister himself has stated that there is to be no discrimination against any nationality,” Carl Smith, spokesman for the Bahamian National Emergency Management Agency, said at a briefing Thursday. “There is no discrimination.”
But Haitians and their advocates say they have suffered a history of discrimination here and fear they will be targeted for more abuse once the aid groups and news cameras leave. They and the Haitian government are asking for more protection.
“They don’t like Haitians in this country,” said Julie Oliboice, 28, who was born in Haiti but said she is a naturalized citizen of the Bahamas. “They don’t want to help the Haitians.”
The U.S. State Department has noted “widespread” claims of discrimination, including reports of forced labor, allegations of government extortion and warrantless arrests.
Haitians grew from less than 4 percent of the population in 1970 to nearly 12 percent in 2010, according to the government. Some researchers say the number is probably larger. Thousands are estimated to be here illegally, and thousands more are stateless: They were born here but don’t have citizenship. The Bahamas does not grant birthright citizenship to the children of noncitizens.
Some Haitians said they were turned away this week from the Kendal G.L. Isaacs National Gymnasium, one of the largest shelters, but others received meals and airbeds, the Haitian Embassy confirmed. Soldiers at the shelter said it was full. Officials did not allow reporters in.
Laurie Ferguson, a 46-year-old Bahamian, stood outside the shelter this week in a yellow vest. She had volunteered to help.
“I don’t see any form of discrimination,” she said. “If there was discrimination, I wouldn’t be here.”
Dorval Darlier, charge d’affaires at the embassy, said Haitians were being treated well at the shelters. He was compiling lists of hurricane victims in hopes the Bahamian government would grant them amnesty, allowing allow them to stay in the Bahamas to work and to help rebuild.
“I cannot tell them how to govern their country,” he said. “Of course they need Haitians. They need the Haitian labor. The Haitians participate in the construction of this great country.”
The Bahamian government, still in the midst of disaster relief, has not yet responded to the Haitian request.
The debate in the Bahamas has echoes in the United States and other countries where Haitians have sought refuge from poverty, repression and political turmoil.
Advocates for immigrants have urged the Bahamas not to expel Haitians in the wake of Dorian and the United States not to deport Bahamians.
Paul Justin, pastor at Solid Rock Baptist Church, a sea-green chapel in a Nassau neighborhood much like the ones destroyed on Abaco, took donated clothes to Haitians in shelters and at church members’ houses.
At a little white house in Nassau, he found four cousins, all men, who had been sleeping on a church volunteer’s floor. They said they hoped contractors would hire them to help rebuild Abaco. They said work permits were costly and hard to get before the storm, and Haitians are often paid little.
“Even though we have the same color as them, they treat us very differently,” said Rockens Elie, 25, an undocumented laborer who lived on Abaco.
On Fifth Avenue in Nassau, Justin found a family of eight who lived under a mango tree in the Mudd. They were sleeping on a friend’s living room floor.
Sainvernio D’Haiti, 38, a construction worker who has lived in the Bahamas since 1993, recently fell from a two-story roof and cannot work.
His niece, Theresa, 18, is the only family member born in the Bahamas. She speaks English with a Bahamian accent but is considered Haitian.
Theresa D’Haiti said she cannot afford college here. She said she has applied for citizenship but has not heard back.
Justin, the pastor, tried to comfort them. “I know that you’re traumatized,” he said. “Remember you have life. There is hope.”
At the Solid Rock church hall, Thamika Petit-Jean, a 13-year-old girl born in the Bahamas, looked frustrated and bored. Before the storm, she lived with her Haitian mother and 15-year-old twin sisters in Murphy Town. Now they are homeless, and her mother appears lost.
“She doesn’t know what to do,” the girl said.