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An Immigrant's Story: Odilon Celestin

Restaurateur Odilon Celestin at his place of business in Florida. (Andrew Wainer)

The story of Haitian-born Odilon Celestin exemplifies the rags to riches narrative of many immigrants - an outcome that also benefits the communities in which they land. Andrew Wainer, senior immigration policy analyst with the Bread for the World Institute, writes about Celestin in “Harvest Haitian entrepreneurial spirit,” an article published in the Sun Sentinel last month. 

In 2001, Haitian-born Odilon Celestin arrived in Florida on a boat from the Bahamas. As an unauthorized immigrant with contacts, his work options were limited. His first job was harvesting green beans in Homestead. "I came and I didn't know people, I didn't have any friends," Celestin said. "This is how I started my life [in the United States]."

By 2003, he transitioned from agriculture to working in a bakery, eventually launching his own storefront restaurant in the Haitian enclave of North Miami. The banks turned down his loan requests, but he drew from a local nonprofit and his own savings for start-up capital.

Ten years later, Celestin received a $380,000 bank loan to open a second, larger restaurant that occupies 3,000 square feet, has capacity for 80 customers, and will have 11 employees.

For many immigrants, the driving force to succeed is the escape from poverty. Wainer has written extensively about factors that motivate people to leave their countries of origin in search of a better life. The humanitarian crisis on the southern border of the United States is a stark example of what life without hope can lead to - parents sending their children on a dangerous journey to spare them from violence and poverty.

The exodus from poverty is familiar to Christians and many Americans. For 40 years, Moses and his charges wandered the desert fleeing poverty and violence. Some of us can look a few generations back in our own family narratives and find the ancestor who arrived at Ellis Island with no more than a suitcase and a heart full of hope. For some, it is our parents who made the hard decision to leave their families to give us opportunity; for others, the story is in process.

Full of hardship and determination, the migrant’s story often concludes with success, especially when other positive conditions are present. Immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship is critical to business sustainability. Research shows that a path to citizenship will expand the U.S. economy by more than 5 percent over 20 years. Celestin’s entrepreneurial drive turned him into a job creator and resulted in an economic stimulus in his community.

In a country still struggling to rise out the Great Recession, harnessing the entrepreneurial drive of Celestin and others like him makes economic sense. Reflecting on our own narratives of exodus may instill in our hearts the Christian compassion that reminds us to hold out our hand in fellowship to others who come with nothing but hope.



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