Cynthia Desert and her brother Ernso in the tent camp where they live in Port at Prince, Haiti. Behind them stands what remains of St. Anne's church after an earthquake struck the area two years ago. (Kem Knapp Sawyer/Pulitzer Center)

On January 12, 2010, an earthquake destroyed Cynthia Desert’s house in Port au Prince, Haiti’s capital. Cynthia and her family spent the night on the street. A few days later they moved to a tent camp behind what was left of St. Anne’s, the church where Cynthia’s parents first met.

Some Haitians have rebuilt their houses, but others — almost half a million people — still live in camps.

For the past two years Cynthia has slept on the floor of the tent next to her parents. The small space is neatly organized: a cooking area on one side with carefully stacked pots and pans, and in another corner a fan, a radio and a broken refrigerator. They store their clothes in plastic tubs covered with towels to keep out the dust. An electric bulb attached to a cord hangs from the ceiling tarp. This tarp is not waterproof — when it rains, so much water floods the tent that no one can sleep. Cynthia, now 13, does not know how long her family will have to remain in the camp — for now there is no alternative.

School life

On school days, Cynthia wakes up at 5:30 a.m. The camp has no shower but neighbors who live across the street let Cynthia bathe at their house.

Cynthia’s mother buys breakfast from a street vendor — bread and coffee with hot milk. Cynthia eats and then changes into her school uniform, a blue and white checked shirt, a blue pleated skirt and black shoes.

She brushes the dust off her shoes, and her mother helps fix her hair. She checks her backpack to make sure she has all her homework — lessons on the legislative branch, mollusks and rice-producing countries.

After the earthquake, Cynthia’s school was closed for three months. It has now been rebuilt and is a 15-minute walk from the camp. As soon as Cynthia opens the gate to the girls’ public school, she hugs and kisses her friends — joining them in a card game.

At 8:30 a.m. sharp, the principal appears. All the students immediately line up in the narrow courtyard. They say the pledge of allegiance as their country’s flag is raised. They sing a hymn and Haiti’s national anthem.

Once the students are seated at their desks, Cynthia’s sixth-grade teacher, Monsieur (that’s French for Mister) Baron, takes attendance and prepares to teach a lesson on homonyms. Cynthia studies both French and Creole, Haiti’s two official languages, at school. Although she speaks only Creole at home, she has mastered French — math and French are her two favorite subjects. She is a bright student and works hard.

At 4 p.m. Cynthia gets home, changes her clothes, eats supper — bread with eggs — and does her homework.

Time with friends

Most of Cynthia’s friends live outside the camp, so she can see them only on weekends. On Saturdays, she helps her mother with chores, studies and attends a youth group at St. Anne’s. On Sundays, Cynthia and her parents sing in the church choir.

On Sunday afternoons, Cynthia has time to visit her friends. They jump rope, tell jokes and play tag and hide-and-seek.

But before it turns dark, Cynthia must return to the cramped quarters of the camp. As she falls asleep she dreams of becoming a flight attendant.

More about Cynthia 

To learn more about Cynthia’s life in Haiti, you can see a video and more photographs at

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— Kem Knapp Sawyer

Sawyer is a contributing editor at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.