Students and teachers from Jesuit and Partner Schools across Australia took part in the Timor Leste Immersion over the last school holidays. A total of 16 students from eight schools took part in the event, along with three accompanying teachers. Stella Korlaki, a teacher at Xavier Catholic College in Hervey Bay, describes their experiences.
We arrived in Darwin in two different groups. Little did we know that we would develop close and supportive friendships through our shared encounters in East Timor.
Arriving in Dili, the capital of Timor Leste, we were hit by the warmth of the climate as well as the tremendous warmth of the people. Overcoming the surprise of lax customs and border control, cramming bags and bags of luggage, donations and 19 people into a very old 16 seater mini-bus was an insight into what was to come.
In our time there, we learned a lot about the violent and unjust history over the past 100 years of a country so beautiful and so close to Australia. As we familiarised ourselves with the ‘city’ of Dili - seeing UN troops and vehicles everywhere, and meeting local Jesuits and novices - it quickly became apparent that there are a lot of good people doing a lot of good things to strengthen Timor Leste’s independence and heal the wounds of old.
Travelling to the village of Railaco in the mountains, we were struck by the beauty of the landscape and the poor condition of the roads and housing. We were greeted by Sr Rita, who immediately made us feel welcome and at home as she had already learned all our names and where we were from.
We were greeted with a formal welcome by the students and staff of Fatima Senior School, run partly by the Jesuits, and spent the next three days getting to know the students: playing sport, dancing, learning Tetum (one of the official languages) and giving English lessons.
Sr Rita then told us about her plans to organise a canteen for her students. Many walk long distances to and from the school, and return home without consuming any food. This means they eat nothing for 9 to 10 hours a day. This canteen would provide them with some sustenance for their long school day.
While in the highlands, we also helped with a feeding program and health clinic, organised by two Jesuit priests, Fr Phuong and Fr Bong (who is also a doctor). The children are fed twice a week, and it is probably the only well-rounded, nourishing meal they have.
At the health clinic, some of the people remarked to Fr Bong that they had never seen so many white people, especially in their isolated, remote community. Here, students recorded the weights and blood pressures of older Timorese women. Many of these women weighed in at barely 40 kg and although they are slight of build, they are underweight.
Cassai, where a new Jesuit school is to be built, brought on new experiences again. Just like Railaco, we were to have cold ‘bucket showers’ and slept on the floor. The Jesuit-owned land is built on top of a hill they call Montserrat, which provided us with amazing sunrises and sunsets. Here we worked hard, building stairs, digging holes, planting trees and weeding parts of the new school grounds. On the school property, they have recently tapped water, and the school (to be named St Ignatius of Loyola) will now be providing water for the whole community, so that children do not have to walk so far to collect buckets of water.
The immersion team has returned home to Australia with a greater appreciation for the many blessings we experience every day. We have a deeper awareness of the need to help our less fortunate brothers and sisters in Christ. Xavier Catholic College participants Meg and Letitia were fantastic ambassadors for our school. They have truly demonstrated the Ignatian ideal of being ‘men and women for others’.