Education provides the pathway out of poverty and the impact the Loreto Sisters are having in Timor-Leste and many others will remain in my heart forever, writes Elouise Hahn as she reflects on her deeply moving experience in East Timor.
Sitting on a flight leaving Dili in Timor-Leste I am overcome with multiple waves of sheer emotional exhaustion. As I silently shed a few tears looking out the window – I know it’s time to put pen to paper. I have been shaken out of the comforts of my easy existence in Australia after spending just one week in a country which is only a one hour journey from Darwin. In that time I have been witness to the lives of so many beautiful Timorese people born into a world which is anything but easy.
Snaking our way up the rugged mountains of Timor to reach our destination 3 hours from Dili – my first impressions are of derelict and destroyed buildings coupled with serene sunsets overlooking the magnificent, all-encompassing ocean.
I later learn the crumbling buildings are a result by the Indonesians as they left the country following the 1999 referendum ousting their brutal 24-year occupation which led to the genocide of over 200,000 people. I feel numb as I am reminded the Australian Government, under Malcom Fraser at the time, privately supported the invasion and occupation of the Indonesians in Timor-Leste as it was deemed to be “of strategic interest to Australia.” As a proud Australian I now carry a sense of shame.
The following morning after a restful and warm sleep in Baucau at Loreto Sister Natalie Houlihan’s home we arrive in the remote village of Gari-uai. This is a community who openly invited the Loreto Sisters to build a Pre-Primary School and Community Development Centre after strongly feeling that the educational opportunities had to be lifted. The village is so isolated there is no running water; instead it has to be trucked in on dirt roads.
I am reminded of the simplicity and strong sense of community these people cherish. The children’s sense of play and their exuberant smiles continue to dance in my heart, but what I found most surprising was their patience. I learnt this through Ario, a 5-year-old-boy, who was and still is, covered in open sores, festering with pus and painfully swollen hands that inhibit him from writing. Not a single complaint by Ario was uttered as Loreto Sister Diaan Stuart did her best to put antiseptic and band-aids on the wounds. It was hard to fight back the tears. But how could I dare cry when this boy is already experiencing the harshest challenges of a life at such a young age – so very different to mine.
The following day I sat correcting maths equations for the year 1 students from the Government Primary School, located opposite to where the permanent Loreto Pre-Primary School is being built. Their joy at learning is palpable. My task was to call out the names of the children whose workbooks I had corrected and together work through the equations. We used the colourful tops from juice bottles. This innovation came from Loreto Sister Hilary Blackie in Australia to help with counting. I can attest to the importance of such minimalist items that we would deem ‘rubbish’ in Australia. I felt a sense of disappointment because I routinely throw these items away without any thought.
The Loreto Sisters have a vital role to play in Timor-Leste. Not only are they a symbol of hope but they provide unconditional support to families who otherwise would go without. Watching Sr. Natalie give a little pair of shoes to Sonia, a 5-year-old girl suffering from painful rheumatoid arthritis, who lives with her grandma in a hut made out of straw, jolts at my heart. I later learn her father was killed by a neighbour while tending to his crops a few years ago.
That afternoon I witnessed Loreto Sister Margie Bourke with so much warmth and love give Communion to a sick and elderly man in his home. What a sacred and private moment. Living in a world full of temporary things it’s these moments which are perpetual.
I fell asleep in the evening feeling a sense of guilt for the life I lead and wanting to implore others to take a step out of their own reality and into the hearts and minds of others. Whether that is lending a hand at the local soup kitchen, donating clothes to St Vincent De Paul, or better yet, volunteering in a resource poor country – even a few weeks will have a positive impact on your life.
I know it’s much easier to do nothing. However, I ask you not to close your mind to those that live on less than a $1.50 a day – believing that the problem is too great or only exists in lands too far away to be concerned. How easy that choice would be but what devastating effects it would have. Instead this experience has allowed me to stop and think about how lucky we truly are when our toilet flushes, when the shower flows, when we sleep on a mattress that is not ridden with scabies or fleas and when more importantly we have access to educational standards that couldn’t even be imagined by these young minds and many more like them.
The world’s affluence needs to be more equitably balanced so that the richest 1% of the population don’t continue to have more wealth than the rest of the world combined. I grapple with the fact that 62 people own the same wealth as half the world’s population combined. Not until these scales of injustice come into some sort of balance will people like Sonia have any chance to prosper. In the meantime, the Loreto Sisters together with the help of our generous community are truly helping to change the lives of those most in need. Education provides the pathway out of poverty and the impact the Loreto Sisters are having on this community and many others will remain in my heart forever.
*Names have been changed to protect identities
(Photo credit: Elouise Hahn)
This article written by Elouise Hahn, Loreto Ministries Communications Manager, was first published in the December 2016 issue of the Loreto Networker, the bimonthly newsletter of the Loreto Sisters and Loreto Ministries in Australia.