After 15 years living and ministering in Timor Leste, Good Samaritan Sister Rita Hayes returned to Australia last week. Once she’s had “a good break”, Rita, 76, plans to begin a new ministry supporting asylum seekers and refugees in western Sydney.
While Rita feels the “wrench” of leaving the people and the country that mean so much to her – “I don’t feel I’m a visitor, I feel I am Timorese” – she believes that now is the right time to move on.
“The overwhelming feeling [I have] is one of privilege – that I’ve had this privilege to walk with [the East Timorese] as one of them,” Rita told The Good Oil.
“The way they welcomed me, accepted me, looked after me was humbling. And getting to know them so well, just being part of their lives and their families, their struggle – I feel I’ve been so privileged.”
Rita also recognises the “extraordinary privilege” of witnessing “a nation grow right from the beginning in such a short time”.
“To see this little nation develop from utter, utter devastation – there’s no other word for it, there wasn’t a thing standing undamaged – and to see it now, buildings are being renovated, new roads are being laid out, electricity has come.”
Rita first arrived in Timor Leste in early 2000 not long after the horrific violence and destruction that followed the East Timorese people’s vote for independence from Indonesia on August 30, 1999. She and another Good Samaritan Sister, Michelle Reid, were asked by their congregation’s leaders to research the needs of the people and see how best they could help.
What Rita witnessed in those early days remains with her vividly: “The first sight of a destroyed Dili; burnt-out shells with mangled iron of strong buildings; a pile of ashes that denoted where a house had been; the eerie silence with no dogs, birds or chooks; the evidence of the Indonesian scorched-land policy; the thinnest people I had ever seen”.
For most of her 15 years in Timor, Rita worked in the mountainous area of Railaco, a sub-district of Ermera, south of Dili. It’s a coffee-growing area and many people are subsistence farmers. With 40-plus years’ experience in teaching and educational leadership roles in Australia, Rita had much to share with the people there.
For the first five years she lived with the Christian Brothers and trained groups of people in the surrounding mountain villages how to teach literacy to adults, especially to women. She also travelled to each of the villages and taught English in the primary schools and to adult groups.
From 2007 until she left on May 9, Rita lived at the Jesuit Mission Station in Railaco, where she contributed to the community in many ways, but particularly in the development of resources and infrastructure for the local secondary school.
“After long, long battles and lots of obstacles and hardships, the school is now really going well,” said Rita. “I’m just over the moon about the school now; it’s on a solid foundation. We have a Jesuit Director and Jesuit brothers in training help out wonderfully.”
Through the generosity of Australians, Rita has been able to establish vital infrastructure, including classrooms, an administration centre, a canteen, a fence around the school “so we can create gardens”, and a solar power and water system that supplies the school, medical clinic and the local community.
Another major aspect of Rita’s work has been co-ordinating an educational scholarship program for secondary and tertiary students “which has just grown and grown”. Because of Rita’s efforts and the support of Australian donors, about 130 young people are currently studying at universities in Timor.
Rita has witnessed immense change in Timor over the last 15 years, but what stands out most for her “is seeing young people being able to go to school and have an education because that’s the hope for Timor – to have an educated population.
“The Timorese are ambitious. They want to improve, they want to learn, they want to do courses, they want to go to uni. So to enable that has been wonderful,” she explained.
Rita will continue to be involved in the scholarship program and return when necessary to distribute funds.
“So I’ve really still got that link [with Railaco] no matter what work I do in Australia. So that’s important. I want to keep the scholarship going,” she said.
Despite her immense contribution to the people of Railaco, Rita’s gratitude for what she has received from the experience prevails. She is particularly grateful for the support and friendship of the Jesuit community and the Christian Brothers.
“The Jesuit community has been caring and protective, and their commitment to the people and to the mission have been inspirational.
“I’ve been very, very fortunate. That’s the only way I look at it. Blessed, really blessed,” she said.