April 2011

Helping the East Timorese on our behalf

It’s been 11 years since Good Samaritan Sister Rita Hayes first arrived in Timor Leste. A lot has happened in that time but Rita’s memories of those early days in the “war-devastated” capital, Dili, are firmly etched in her mind.

BY Stephanie Thomas

It’s been 11 years since Good Samaritan Sister Rita Hayes first arrived in Timor Leste. A lot has happened in that time but Rita’s memories of those early days in the “war-devastated” capital, Dili, are firmly etched in her mind.

“No one could imagine a city, indeed a country, totally burnt out,” says Rita. “Street after street of burnt-out houses; not an animal of any kind to be seen.”

Rita arrived some six months after the horrific violence and destruction that followed the East Timorese people’s vote for independence from Indonesia on August 30, 1999.

The implementation of a “scorched-earth” policy by the Indonesian military and pro-Indonesian militias ensured that very little of the country’s infrastructure – such as houses, hospitals, educational facilities and roads – remained.

Rita says the first free Easter in Timor was a “never-to-be-forgotten” experience. “People with absolutely nothing were rejoicing to be free!”

Today, Australia’s close neighbour is slowly being built from the ground up. The country has come a long way since gaining independence but still has a long way to go. Currently, Timor Leste is one of the poorest countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

Rita feels strongly about being a good neighbour to Timor Leste. She has a great love for its people and is passionate about helping them to overcome the poverty they continue to endure because of decades of injustice – and not just from Portugese colonial rule and Indonesian occupation.

“Knowing the history of East Timor and the dreadful role previous Australian governments have carried out in relation to this tiny country makes any little help that comes through me deeply rewarding,” explains Rita.

She also acknowledges the courageous support and loyalty of many East Timorese who risked or lost their lives helping Australian soldiers during World War II when Japan occupied East Timor. To be offering the East Timorese support now is a privilege for Rita.

Rita is adamant that education is fundamental for the country’s development. “Without an educated work force [the people] cannot re-build their own country and will be dependent on outside expertise,” she says.

With about 40 years’ experience in teaching and educational leadership roles in Australia, Rita has much to share with the Timorese people.

Since 2001, she has been working in the mountainous area of Railaco, a sub-district of Ermera, about 37 kilometres, or an hour’s rugged drive, south of Dili. It’s a coffee-growing district and most people are subsistence farmers.

For the first five years Rita lived with the Comunidade Edmund Rice, training 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.

Since 2007, Rita has been living at the Jesuit Mission Station in Railaco and teaching at the senior secondary school. This school was established by the local community with support from the Jesuits to serve the students in the mountains who have no access to secondary education other than to live in Dili or Gleno.

“As it is they walk several kilometres to get to school,” says Rita. “Typically, they leave their home at 6am, walk down the mountains to commence school at 9am. They do the return walk at 2pm and have usually eaten nothing in the meantime!”

In addition to her teaching role, Rita is mentoring a young Timorese teacher to become principal of the school. She also co-ordinates a scholarship programme to enable young people from the villages to complete their secondary education and to continue to tertiary level. This programme is funded by donations from individuals, businesses and schools in Australia.

For Rita, being able to provide education for young Timorese is a source of great joy. In a strongly patriarchal society she also finds great satisfaction encouraging girls to be educated and aspire to a variety of careers that will not only transform their lives, but also their country.

Living in Timor has made Rita more aware of how privileged and secure her life has been. She finds it “heart-breaking and humbling” to witness people’s daily struggle to survive. But at the same time, she also sees their happiness.

“Relationships are far more important to them than any material things. Family is supreme,” she explains. “This has its problems, particularly with regard to the practice of corruption, but it means no Timorese is ever alone, [or] without personal support.”

Rita says the Timorese people value time shared together. “They take the time to talk, to laugh, to sing; work can wait.”

But Rita fears that as Timor Leste develops and becomes more influenced by the materialism of developed countries like Australia, the people “may lose their wonderful priorities that exist now” such as “love of people, love of God and his influence in their lives, and simplicity of life”.

So what can people in Australia do to assist their near neighbours as they re-build their country?

According to Rita, we can play a vital advocacy role by encouraging justice and equity in Australian government and business deals with Timor Leste, particularly in relation to the country’s valuable oil and gas reserves.

“The oil issue and the proposed [regional] detention centre [to process asylum seekers] reveal that we can still act as ‘the bully boy’ in regard to Timor,” says Rita. “Contact your local and government representatives to let your opinions be known.”

While Rita is the only Good Samaritan Sister working in Timor, she is conscious that she represents all Good Samaritan Sisters through her presence in the country. Rita is also very grateful to the many individuals and groups who support her ministry in Timor Leste.

“My overwhelming thanks to all sisters, friends, business people, schools and colleges who, through their great generosity enable me to help the Timorese on your behalf.”

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