Monday, March 22, 2010

Beautiful Timor Leste

Now back at home in Canada the question we are asked by others is; “How was it? Was it beautiful? What was the best part? Sum it up for me.” Well how do you go about doing that?

Where does one begin to sum up an experience such as our recent Solidarity Trip to Timor Leste (East Timor)? This has been on many of our minds both during the last few days within the country and the week now following our trip. Though its necessary to be well prepared before such a trip and read as much as you can about the country’s history and its current affairs, it does not fully prepare you for what they are about to experience. Your first impressions might surprise you from what you were expecting and your understanding of the people’s mood or sentiment is just impossible to grasp before hand. During the 2 weeks our Development and Peace delegation was in Timor Leste, one of the sentiments
that kept coming to us was how proud we were to be Canadian Catholics representing this great organization, the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace. How welcome we felt everywhere we went and how real the sincerity was from the organizations and their people thanking us for our support and for coming to their country. This was from the heart.

The Catholic Church has played such a big role in this country’s history and continues to be an anchor of the society. Witnessing this first hand granted us an insight in how this country will continue to grow and gain it’s national confidence. It takes time for a people to gain an appreciation for being their own catalyst in setting the course for their future while simultaneously trying to deal with past that continues to haunt them. We were fortunate to see many examples of how groups are working at this from different angles but all with an equal passion. The people were certainly ready for the work that lays ahead. It was interesting to talk to so many people and for the conversation to naturally be about one aspect or another regarding Timor Leste. It seemed the last thing on their minds was what our country was like. There was never any question nor desire by those that we met about a future outside of their country. This was not a place where one got the impression that people are eager to leave. The country we were introduced to was a proud and new nation with a troubling past, and with an equally hopeful future.

This future was what we were most concerned for as we sat around a table in Bali contemplating what we just experienced. Our hearts too had quickly become concerned for their future. What will happen when the United Nations and the other international organizations now present start to leave? Will the country be ready to pick up all the pieces?
We sure hope so and are encouraged by what Development and Peace has nurtured here in the way of supporting the groups we have. Helping to build the confidence of a very young population, building the skill sets needed in the rebuilding of lives, communities, governments and society at large.
This is a mighty challenge to all the people and we are grateful to be part of it in a small way. We all committed to each other to raise the awareness of Timor Leste back in Canada and to continue to raise more funds to support this country and the many others that benefit from Development and Peace.

We will not only raise the issues but stand beside the beautiful people of Timor Leste (East Timor) in their struggles. In solidarity with them and their dreams for a brighter future.
A future they have longed for, fought for and are now working for.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

International Women’s Day in Timor Leste

Our last day in Timor Leste

It seemed fitting that on our last day in Timor Leste we would have time to take part in the local rally celebrating International Women’s Day. Many of our partners were there as well as people we had already met and other leading officials in the community, including Ms Maria Paixoa de Costa, the Vice President of the Parliament, Ms Ameerah Haq the head of the UN for Timor Leste and Ms Kristy Swann Gusmao, the wife of the Prime Minister who also heads up her Aloha Foundation. The speeches given spoke of the continued struggles ahead and need for education of all youth in the country and need for more in the way of gender equality. It felt like we had a much broader insight into what this new country is all about, thus it was fitting that this event was on our last day and not our first.

We have planned our debriefing meetings to be in Bali over the next 2 days as we start our large task of reviewing and reflecting on much of what we have learned here in the past 2 weeks. We can then begin our new role in bringing this information back to Canada so we can raise these issues and help the people of Timor Leste by getting their country back on our international agenda as Canadians.

We have noticed the amazing number of other countries here but outside of our involvement as the Canadian Catholic Organization of Development and Peace, we met no other Canadians except for a few working for other governments and other nation’s NGOs. There was an absolute zero Canadian Government presence here now as the rest of the world community of international governments continues to work to help this new country get back on its feet.


Men are working at gender equality too

Liquica March 7 - Day 11

Today we visited with the last partner we came to see. This is a partner in a slightly different sense as we met with a Men’s group in a community about 30kms west of Dili.

The group AMKV (Men Against Domestic Violence) was started in 2002 after a visiting delegation from Nicaragua came to talk about a similar program they started in their country. Olivia is a director of the group that has established themselves in 8 districts across the country and he took us to one of them, Kaiteu, a small community a few kms south of Liquica, right on the edge of the ocean. Many members of community came out to meet us in a beautiful hut they had built as a meeting center.There they explained about their 4 objectives, increasing the partnership and interaction with women to increase gender equality awareness, prevent domestic violence, establish a strong men’s group against sexism and insure that men are included in anger management training. They had numerous activities to carry out their mandate, discussions, training, capacity building and advocacy. They stressed they were grateful for the help in organizing the groups and were not in need of money for support but rather were looking for ways to help them to organize, have meetings and further discussions. Their group consisted of men both young and old who all were keen to learn and transfer skills. There were about 300 people in this village which had also formed a women’s group..

We were fed an excellent morning snack and had a great lunch of their local foods. We also got a great chance to visit their homes and walk around the village area. They have little in the way of community infrastructure as the drinking water is still carried from the hills as the local salt water well is only used for washing.
There is a huge disproportion of youth to adults as they could not even guess how many youth they had as it changes so often. The youth are using the typical sports activities and music as way to socialize while the older women tried to raise monies by selling cooked rice. The natural social gatherings with other local communities are at play here, as well school and church being an important part of their lives.
A telling moment came when we asked if the youth group was used as a way for all youth to get together and from the initial reaction we thought that no, this was not the case but after some further comments by the group it turned out that many of them were now couples. They commented that the work of AMKV has helped to reduce the number of domestic violence incidents in the community and within families even though some of elder men were not keen to hear of this type of talk

Dick and Paul

Commitment to Timor Leste

Ailieu Day 10

The Merryknoll Sisters were a delight to visit. It was like one of those days in Canada where you drive for a few hours, visit a short while, then make your way back home again and feel good for doing it. It might seem like a lot of driving but the scenery was so incredible and the visit was a great one. This particular order of 5 sisters and 2 lay missionaries were purposefully far from Dili and its oppressive heat. They chose to be up in the mountains at Ailieu to be close to the people they came to help. They first came to this area in 1992 at the request of Bishop Bellow and thus have lived through some rough times here. This order is part of the same order that Fr Rolf is from, the Dominicans and he had been here a few times before and keen for us to visit the Sisters. With 3 Americans, and one each from Bolivia and the Philippines they are all foreigner here but are treated as trusted locals. Their stories of their times up in Ailieu were so full of heart wrenching tragedy and such love of the people here. After more than 17 years in Ailieu they have witnessed and had been themselves through so much. During the occupation, the district of Ailieu was a stronghold of the resistance movement and many of the men stayed just outside of town in the hillsides while the Indonesian Army stayed in the villages. It’s no wonder the people distrust any military presence as during the occupation the military was too scared to go up in the hillsides and thus targeted and brutalized the women and children during this period. The sisters recounted the days and weeks leading up to the vote for independence. They struggled to stay alive by running during the scorched earth campaign from both the Indonesian Army and the militia who carried out much of the killings and destruction of anything built during the Indonesian Occupation. They told us how they were warned that if the vote went against Indonesia, there would no safe place to hide anywhere and they had better get ready to leave the area immediately. The campaign to destroy everything was carried out with a military precision that was impossible not to have been pre-planned. The memories of the original invasion in 1975 which first lead to the massive killing spree were still fresh enough to many people who took these new warnings seriously and fled to the city and West Timor instead of hiding in the hills for what many thought might be months. Over 400,000 of the 600,000 people fled many parts of Timor Leste and went either to Dili or to the border with West Timor, inside Indonesia to escape the killings by the militia. In September 1999 the UN moved in this time to restore order and the militia was put down in weeks stopping the violence. Those few weeks were a dramatic time in the recent history as even churches were not a safe refuge. We were told that if there were too many gathered within, this enough reason for some in the militia to open fire on the clergy and the people. This occurred in Dili and throughout the country. There are many examples still in the country where buildings remain unocupied as a result.

It might have been the lack of a language barrier or that we were talking to fellow foreigners but the stories of the tragedies seemed all too real and chilling when recounted to us. These stories had echoed some of experiences that Jess Agustin has shared with us during our stay here as he too has lived through some of these same periods. Jess talked about going through the streets of Dili with a priest during the violence and picking up many people with strong times to the church before they were rounded up by the militia, saving the lives of many and being too late to save the lives of others. These harrowing accounts sure make one appreciate the tremendous dedication of these people to do what’s right. We sure hope the future is much kinder to this country.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

Two Roads Diverge

Today I saw two road crews working on different sections of a road which we drove on high up into the mountains. When I say road, you have to think of the logging roads in BC or the back roads of the prairies, then imagine that road with twelve years of neglect and in the rainy season!!! Both crews were trying to make a difference. Both crews had about six men. Both crews worked in the mud with only flip flops or bare feet, and bare hands. Here is the contrast, one crew had wire cages they were filling with rocks that had been brought there by a dump truck, the other crew worked with their own picks and shovels.
One crew was being paid by the government; the other crew was not and were stopping people as they passed, asking for money!! It leaves one wondering if maybe the frustration of a crumbling infrastructure or the slow movement of the services that are not getting out to the people who need it, is what caused the other crew of men to take their action and stop the public to ask for money. Or maybe they were just out to make a buck…. But let me tell you, I could find an easier way to make a buck.


The Districts

Friday March 5th – our 9th day in Timor Leste

Today we spent our first of 3 days visiting the “districts”, with Emera being the first. Emera has a population of 8,000 which here they call a village. It took us about 3 ½ hours to get there from Dili with a definite need for our four wheel drive vehicles. It is easy to see why these vehicles are necessary when you drive through one wash out after another. Winding, twisting and sheer drop offs at some points, up and over the mountains we went to where the air was refreshingly cool, though wet with rain at times too. We even lost the use of a truck due to a transfer case issue. Good thing we had extra room.

Upon our arrival,it felt like the entire community showed up to welcome us with a “Welcome Dance”. This included young and old, along with many home made instruments and a special gift of personalized “Tais” for each of our delegationWe visited 2 community centers both supported by Development and Peace partner, FKSHThe first one was focused on the younger women (18 and older), with 9 active members and 32 new recruits coming through their program. The second center was for the senior women, who known as “tias”, which is a name given as a sign of respect here. These women first started organizing on their own by committing $20 each for the group. Their goal was to start a center where they could transfer some of their skills in a group setting. Some of the activities now put on by these 2 centers include, sewing, embroidery, weaving, coffee packaging, English training, traditional medicines and book keeping.

There is always more needed in these communities as we heard their continued desire for material, sewing machines, and the ever present desire to have computers.. Everyone we met were so appreciative of the support we had given them through our partner FKSH that it was great to see how our funds were used by a local NGO. FKSH had helped these people within a community to create and implement a programs they had tailored for themselves and their own particular needs.

There are 12 sub-villages who all use this young women’s activity center. The local parish supplied the building for the youth center and helped provide for the original training by sending 2 students to the city of Baucau with one of the Sisters for several months of training. The seniors center was donated to them by the federal government after writing a proposal. We were quite impressed that this came about until we visited the center in person and saw it was actually a condemned building as it was severely damaged by an earth quake and now the only safe area in the building was a small room in the back that was used to sell their wares. Though we only spent a few hours in this village we were sure impressed with their hospitality and their gratitude towards Development and Peace for funding our partner FKSH. We had a great lunch, were serenaded in song and music and had lots of opportunity for shopping by buying many of the handicrafts made by the very women we came to see. We were lead back to our cars by women drummers and a huge following.

The roads and rain are a major factor here as it was easy to see how these people can be completely cut off from the rest the rest of the country after a downpour. Another example of the realities in these communities was highlighted when the main facilitator working for FKSH in this village was unable to attend due to coming down with dengue fever. This decision was probably not made lightly as we were some of the few foreigners to come through this town based on the entries in the guest book.

On the way back to Dili we stopped about half way down the mountain at a training center built by the Catholic Church and run by one of partners here, the Sisters of St Paul Chartres. This center was recently built on donated land and also holds classes for women to learn how to cook and sew. These 3 month courses are run from Monday to Wednesday and provide a great opportunity for the women within this region. They walk from 1-2 hours to get to this center and work on 9 “Singer” sewing machines which were the same models as the ones we saw earier in the morning at the first village. These were very good looking treadle models and very practical as electricity in these areas is scarce and costly. One of the products of their labour is the sewing of school uniforms. The Sisters pay each young lady $5 for sewing the uniform and supply the material. Overall they seem very resourcefull here in this remote location and even much or all of the food needed there is grown on site.

Dick, Mary and Paul

Women in Politics

Thursday Day 8 in Dili – At the Parliament

The ratio of women in politics is surprisingly high here in Timor Leste, though in some ways it may be easier to strive for a goal of gender equality in politics if you are starting from scratch. There is a big focus here to try and encourage women to run for office at various levels and today we met with the Vice-President of the National Parliament to see how that was coming along. Maria Paixao da Costa was actually elevated to the acting Prime Minister and the acting President of the National Parliament today as the others were sequestered at a planning retreat high up in the mountains and effectively cut off from the city. Maria was very gracious to us by spending close to 2 hours in our company. There was much dialogue around her boardroom table where candid questions were asked and experiences were shared from both sides. We even had her sign one of our Fall action cards as one head of Parliament to another. The local press caught wind of meeting and came to film it. We were all surprised to see us on the nightly news on TVTL and suddenly people recognized us as those people from Canada.

With a target of 30% of seats in Parliament slated for women there must be something working as they are currently sitting at 27%. The down side to this stat is the cabinet equivalent here is almost all male with the Vice President being one of the exceptions. I’m sure with more people like Maria Paixao da Costa involved this too will be one of the changes for the better coming in the near future. It turns out quite a few of the Parliamentary Ministers and even more of the general members of Parliament are folks who have a long history with Development and Peace. The is course is quite the success of the organization as it’s a living example of how far the skills can take you that are gained from the “capacity building” development of the people that work with Development and Peace.

From seeing how the Parliament works we next found out more about the municipal level or what they call here the “village council”. The Women’s Caucus is a partner Development and Peace has supported here since 2003 promoting women to participate in leadership within their community. We met with the leadership teams of adjoining villages inside the meeting house of the Kuluhon Village. This was one of the first areas targeted in a National Pilot Project to have community elections. Next year the entire country will have these community style elections for the first time. Each council being made up with 9 members, 3 of which are to be filled by women. Much is being done now to encourage women to step forward and give them the skills needed for public speaking and the like as women have traditionally not carried out such public roles. Having elections is one thing but the task ahead is going to be filled with many challenges. They have no tax base and a very small budget from the national government. Their local problems are great and dealing with the effects of 70% unemployment within their community will be a constant issue.

Dick and Dorothy