Daniel Simon

Immigrated from from Haiti to New York City, 1988

I'm Byron Harris. When you first meet Daniel Simon, you're confronted with the impassive face of someone still not entirely comfortable with speaking English. Engage him in conversation, though, and you discover an intellect graced by humor, goodwill, and love. He attributes his success in the United States to one thing: luck. Not that he hasn't scraped, scrambled and sweated to survive and flourish. It's just that without a few key blessings, he wouldn't have emerged from poverty in Haiti into a career at age 48 as an engineer. Like many immigrants, every aspect of his new life was a challenge. Daniel Simon.

Growing up on an island, the whole neighborhood, everybody know each other. So there was no real separation of class and, always. So the, your neighbor will watch your kid, will feed them. When they say it takes a village with a child in Haiti, it is true, at least in my part of Haiti back in the eighties.

We grew up poor. But you don't know you poor because you don't have any contrast. Everybody around you is poor. So you don't know you poor. And it wasn't until I got here, I saw how poor my family was.

Daniel didn't make the choice to come to the United States. His parents did, looking for an escape from Haiti, the poorest country in North America. He spoke French and his native Creole.

I came here when I was 14 on my way to be 15. So growing up over there as a kid was really nice. So we always play soccer. Running around you’re kids. You don't know better.

For his parents, America was not the land they might have thought. They were black and didn't speak English. His father, who had repaired motorcycles in Haiti, could not find comparable work here. He returned to the island and became estranged from his family for the rest of Daniel's life.

In a way coming here, this split us.

Daniel's mother struggled to find gainful work in New York City. She bounced from a job at McDonald's to being a housemaid and nurse's aide.

I would barely see her. But still, in that experience, I would not be the person that I am right now if we did not come here, if my mom did not sacrifice, trying to provide for me.

She and Daniel lived in a basement apartment in Brooklyn. He gradually learned English and went to high school, but it was not a happy time. High school was a mess.

So you have all these Islanders; you have Jamaican; you got Trinidadian, got Dominican, the Puerto Rican, right. And all these kids in one high school and all lower income.

And I was a very awkward kid. I was nerd. I realize there was a title for that back then. I was into reading comic book and drawing, and I was, I stuttered. I finally learned to master it when I got to college, how to control my breathing so I stuttered less. And then, but when you get there, middle school is like, the kids are terrible. They will pick on you, tease you for the smallest little thing. And if you are not accustomed to the culture, you just feel terrorized.

Literally terrorized because there were gangs.

There was all these gangs. That was back in the eighties. There were all these gangs. Literally we had the, uh, the Haitian posse. That was the name of the gang. And this is the Jamaican, I forgot what they call themselves, versus the, the Trinidadians, versus the, the people from the Bahamas. There was just these massive gang fight. They would fight each other after school, and me being a little scared and I would just [panting]. And I had a couple friends that would try to protect me because they knew I was very awkward. And because I stuttered, I would not talk to anybody.

His high school gave him no career direction. What did, ultimately, was an unnamed man he now calls an angel who pointed him toward the military.

And I went to this job interview, and I was trying to be a bank teller. It was this massive conference room, and there was this one guy, to this day I still think this man was an angel. And he's bragging about his time in the military. And he's loud, okay. He's talking about how he went to Germany, and he went to Italy, and he was just bragging about his military. I'm this little skinny kid, right. I was like, what, what are the military. So I went looking for the Marine recruiter. I went looking for a Marine recruiter. Thank God the Marine recruiter was not there. I will not survive the Marine, okay. These are the real warriors. And there was this little Puerto Rican recruiter, army recruiter, guy. Really sharp. So he started talking to me, and he is trying to pitch me. And he got me to sign up for the army. The army had a quota system, right. The more people you get signed up for the regular army, like the people that do the fighting, the actual soldiers. He showed me the list of things I'm qualified for. So again, he just trying to make his quota. He's trying to get the bonus. He just see me as another number. And then he's telling me this is what I qualify for. He, he gimme infantry. And I was like, wait a minute, there's gotta be more than that. I told him, I said, I said, I'm trying to get money for, for school cause I’m, I'm finally trying to get my life together, right. I'm trying to pull the strings together, you know, trying to weave a future for myself. And then, and he's like, he is like, no, no, no, this is what you qualify for. And, I’m like no, that cannot be true. You cannot tell me all I'm qualified for is to be a cook or driver, infantry, artillery, right. He's like, okay, well let me go see what I can do. Let me go talk to the manager.

Ultimately Daniel's army job turned out to be a handyman.

Utility equipment repair. Pretty much a fancy name for hard, handyman. So I work on, on generators. I work on air conditioning systems, and I work on water purification systems. Cause pretty much I support the troop when they’re in the field.

Humble; perhaps also life changing.

It was eye opening. Literally, I never left my little pod of Haitians, you know, New Yorkers. And I met all kind of kids from all over to the United States. And I think I was like the only kid there with an accent. And I was the pretty much the second oldest person, and that's what really got me focused because with basic training, I pretty much learned about what my body can do. Pretty much you gotta push to your limit. You learn discipline. You learn how to make up your bed, pretty much. You learn how to just do the basic thing. If you do the basic thing, everything else will flow from that. Focus on the little things, just building the discipline, making your bed, taking a shower. And I start making friends, just getting a different perspective. Realizing my potential. And that's what really propel me forward.

All went well until he had to qualify with a rifle, which he did. Sensitized to the idea of killing another human being, though, he had a spiritual awakening.

One of the promises I made to God when I survived the military was I will pursue You wherever I think you may be. Whenever I would meet someone I felt was really kind, right, that be really nice, and I would say, what church are you go to? And I would go visit that church.

Religion would help define his life after the military. The army stiffened a core of discipline in his soul, but, as he discovered when he got out, he now had to find a place to live, a job and a car. Luck shined on him again.

The army dumped me in Fort Hood, Texas. And then when I came out, I, I live in a little city called Killeen, Texas. I came out; I barely had a couple paycheck saved. But I needed a car. Cause the job, I, I got a job interview in Austin, Texas, but I live in Killeen, Texas. It's about 45 minutes away. I barely had a couple paycheck. I was like one paycheck away from just being homeless, right.

So began the saga of the fortunate Ford. On the day of his discharge at Fort Hood he met another new veteran who was moving to Germany. That man just happened to have an elderly Ford he needed to get rid of. In a stunning handshake deal, he sold it to Daniel on the spot.

So, but, he was selling the car for like 1800, right. So I had to make payments. So every, for every month for like six months, I met with his wife at a parking lot. So this man trusted me. This man trusted me. Barely knew me. As he's exiting, I'm exiting. We met. He trusted me to meet his wife in a parking lot every month to pay him. Then I gave him half. I think I gave him 800. He agreed. Total strangers, right. All he saw was army green. So he trusted me to meet with his wife in a parking lot and pay the rest. This is like, crazy. It happened. It really happened, right.

The first building block of Daniel's new life was in place. He had a job interview in Austin the next day. The only problem: the Ford was a stick shift. Daniel had never driven one.

I didn't know how to drive stick. So there'll be the day before the job interview, okay. I get this car. I'm in this parking lot, grinding gears, you know, trying to learn how to drive this stick shift.

So somehow I build a confidence. I'm gonna get on the highway. So imagine, I'm on the highway, and I stall. I stall on the highway. So I'm freaking out. I'm panicking. Me, you know, I'm always, had to always be on time. So I left home two hours before the actual time I need for the interview. Then I got lost. It was way before Google Maps and all that stuff. You literally had a book you had to go through. I got lost on my way to a job interview, right. But I still managed to get there late. I was about 30 minutes late for this job interview. And then, the lady, she agreed to interview me. I'm sweating because the car barely had any air conditioning. And it was May, and I was, and I made, I made it to the job interview and she, she agreed to hire me.

Shelly? Jenkins! Shelly Jenkins. That was my first manager. So I'm working as an assembler, just know the basic stuff from the army, right. Knowing how to fix, you know, air conditioner, general whatever. So she saw my enthusiasm. She was willing to train me. So I'm learning how to build these, these massive machine where they call them wafer sorters. The company name at the time was Assist Technology where they, what they do in the whole semiconductor assembly factory pipeline, there's different, these different stage in the process. I was assembling these, these machines. And they trusted me. Literally they would gimme this diagram, a schematic. They just dumped this whole part in front of you with this diagram in schematic. And I was, I was building everything. I did the wiring. I was doing the assembly. And afterward I would do the testing. That's what it's, it's called a wafer sorter. It was this, six-foot tall thing. It's about four feet wide, and it's about eight feet long. And you would assemble this thing.

And that's what literally, I'm telling you this again, more luck, more luck. And I will build these machines. And I said, I will build it, test it. We had to program it, so I was working with the mechanical engineers. There was a floor, a floor manager, and he saw how I would just ask questions. He's like, man, you're not an engineer. Just, you know, just do what you’re told. And I was like, the moment he said those words to me—you're not an engineer; just do what you’re told—it motivated.

Community college, junior college, the university of Texas at Dallas. Gradually, methodically, Daniel educated himself while still working, until five years later he earned an electrical engineering degree. Now he works at Lockheed Martin in Grand Prairie, a fulfilling vocation in its own right. Just as fulfilling is his give-back vocation. He started tutoring young men in mathematics, earning the nickname, The Math Wizard.

And they started calling me their Math Wizard, right. That was the nickname they gave to me. The Math Wizard, right. So when they start the mentoring program the most a mentor can have two kids.

This is at the West Dallas Boys and Girls club, where each mentor usually is in charge of two students. Daniel is in such demand he has three.

They're pretty much my kids literally. I had pictures when they were like eleven and these boys are, you know, twenty and they are amazing kids. One of them is in the Air Force; one of them he is in college. The other one he's working with his dad and his dad, uh, he kind of buy cars and auctions and stuff. He picks them up and sell them.
So I'm kind of watching three separate experience happening, you know, and they're trying to be wonderful, wonderful kid, you know, trying to find their ways into, into this life. And, I've known them since they were eleven as their math tutor. Now, I'm still their mentor and that's how I've been trying to give back, trying to, you know, help them not make the mistakes that I made.

I would take them to the museum. I would take them, I would take them everywhere. The first time they had sushi was with me. They're always coming to me, little stupid little questions, just them having someone to point to them, being available. I wish I had that. Their actual parents, they're not native English speakers. They don't know a lot of the stuff that I know. That's life experience. So when they need help with school stuff, when they were writing their English papers, they come to me. Master. They come to me like, literally, I'm like the English-speaking version of their dad.

To this day you could tell the, the trajectory of their life was really impacted by this program because they start you where pre-K, once they get you in the program and they literally support you all the way to college.

My military service was not enough to give back to this country. This country help them. I would not be who I am, and I'm still growing. I'm still connecting with people and there's all these different groups, um, different community I'm part of. It would not be, if it wasn't for America. The tax is not enough to this country, it’s so wonderful. We, we managed to put something together, this amazing experiment, even though it it's rough, right.

Daniel is still learning, among other things, how to be a black man in America.

You have to constantly be careful what neighborhood, where you go, where literally I have, I give myself a curfew. There are places I refuse to drive at night. There are highways I refuse to drive on at night because you have to be mindful where, where the police. I know the police; they're wonderful. I have friends who are all cops. But they're trained in a way where they're not really protectors. They're more like predators to us. You know what I mean? That's the black man experience. Where if that story is changing, where the immigrant experience is more like this: there are opportunities and places and access you don't have as an immigrant, because you don't know they even exist. They're not people pouring into you, where you don't have mentors.

But the black man experience is the whole experience with as far as unconscious biases, our relationship with the police. So the neighbors, certain people, where you literally have to push yourself to get in a mindset that there are people out there who really have your best interest in mind. But it's getting outta your own self to trust people, to go out there, especially if they don't look like you, to go out and meet people and make connections.

Daniel's luck is wrapped in trust. People trusted him. His lesson as an immigrant is learning to trust them.

The more you are around people, the more comfortable you get. That's human nature. You have to be around people because you, you can't expect people to just be naturally be, you know, inclusive. It take a conscious mind to really expose yourself, to want to go outside of that and become comfortable, with foreigners, with different. So that's the hard part, getting people comfortable with that and, and trying to get out their little pod and you, you know, meet people.

For him, that's the essence of being an immigrant.

Because I've lived that immigrant life, the struggle, the experience, the luck, the blessing, the serendipity of experiences.

By getting out of his own pod and meeting other people, Daniel Simon made his own luck.

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