PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — School teacher Darlene Derosier lost her home in the 2010 earthquake that devastated her country. Her husband died a month later after suffering what she said was emotional trauma from the quake. She and her two daughters now live in tents outside Haiti's capital, surrounded by thousands of others made homeless and desperate by the disaster.
What has helped pull her through all the grief, she said, has been her faith, but not of the Catholic, Protestant or even Voodoo variety that have predominated in this island country. Instead, she has converted to a new religion here, Islam, and built a small neighborhood mosque out of cinderblocks and plywood, where about 60 Muslims pray daily.
Islam has won a growing number of followers in this impoverished country, especially after the catastrophe two years ago that killed about 300,000 people and left millions more homeless. A capital where church attendance is so prevalent that the streets echo with Christian hymns on Sundays now has at least five mosques, a Muslim parliament member and a nightly TV program devoted to Islam.
The disaster drew in aid groups from around the world, including Islamic Relief USA, which built 200 shelters and a secondary school with 20 classrooms.
"After the earthquake, we had a lot of people join," said Robert Dupuy, an imam, or Islamic spiritual leader, in the capital. "We were organized. We had space in the mosques to receive people and food to feed them."
Derosier said she was drawn to the religion's preaching of self-discipline, emphasis on education and attention to cleanliness. The constant washing, she said, helps her and other Muslims avoid cholera, the waterborne illness that health officials say has sickened nearly 600,000 people and killed more than 7,500 others since surfacing after the quake.
In part, the Muslim community's growth can be attributed to the return of expatriates who adopted the faith in the U.S., said Kishner Billy, owner of the island's Telemax TV station and host of the nightly program "Haiti Islam."
Billy and some others believe that Islam's Haitian past goes back before the country's independence in 1804, and that a Jamaican slave and Voodoo priest named Boukman, who led the slave revolt that ousted French colonizers, was actually a Muslim.
"Islam is coming back to Haiti to stay," said Billy, who says he converted from Christianity 20 years ago. "Future generations, my sons and daughters, will speak about Islam."
There are no firm statistics on the number of Muslims in Haiti, just as there are no reliable figures for many things in the country, including Port-au-Prince's exact population.
A 2009 study by the Pew Research Center on the world's Muslim population estimated that Haiti had about 2,000 devotees. Islamic leaders in the country insist the figure is much higher and growing.