The story of Communidade Edmund Rice
The Edmund Rice community in Timor Leste, Communidade Edmund Rice, had an uncertain start: there were difficulties of cultural mix and of diverse visions, and within nine months of arrival, the nation was convulsed by preparations for the 1999 referendum about independence from Indonesia. But by 2001 the community had settled down. Bill Tynan, who had been involved with CER through his role on the leadership team of the Christian Brothers’ former St Francis Xavier Province (Queensland), takes up the story from this point…
The general future mix for CER commenced in 2001, with the base community being Brother Dan Courtney, Sister Rita Hayes, and Tim Grey, a sixth-year medical student who was a past student of a Christian Brothers school and had also worked for a number of years with Edmund Rice Camps in Sydney. That year Dan secured significant funding for 3 years from Caritas Sweden, and the decision was made to base CER’s ministry in the sub-district of Railaco, 36 kms or 75 minutes’ drive from Dili. Unfortunately Dan’s dreams crashed when on 26 October he had a motor-bike accident which left him comatose in a Brisbane hospital for eleven years until his recent death.
My three year involvement with CER from my base in Brisbane led me to abandon other ambitions and move to Timor Leste in August 2002 as ministry leader. During the following ten years I lived and worked with over a hundred volunteers, including nearly ten Christian Brothers and two Sisters – a very rich and challenging experience. As I said to many new arrivals, “You will find the most difficult part of your experience will be living in community”.
Delivering babies and water
The call of Timor Leste’s tragic history and poverty reached many in Australia and New Zealand, those willing to volunteer to be part of CER for some time or to be part of a Rotary building team (over ten groups) or school immersion or building teams (over ten groups). CER’s ministry was focused in five villages of Railaco – about 1000 families, or 8000-10000 people. Dan had met with the local chefes (leaders) and they continue to guide CER’s initiatives.
In 2002 Brother Vin Haseler started using a donated vehicle as a mobile health clinic. He was a trained midwife so many babies were successfully delivered and mothers ‘saved’. His expertise meant he was totally trusted by almost everyone in the villages. Esmerelda, whom Vin employed to help him in 2003, now continues Vin’s mid-wife service.
The major basic need in the hill villages is water and Dan helped Railaco Kraic to install two gravity-fed and one solar pump-filled water tanks in 2001. Since then Sister Rita, Adrian Creedy, and Brother Ray Weston have worked with locals to improve water supply with four other gravity systems. A major recent success, after a few failures, has been Norberto taking responsibility for the maintenance of the water supply in Railaco Kraic, even to the extent of cleaning out the water collection pond after heavy rain before the pipes block up with leaves. It makes a significant difference to village life when the village tap works. CER employs Norberto to do this service for the village, while negotiating with the chefe, the District administrator, and the Government to include water in the present village pay structure. In 2012, the monthly Government pay to the leaders in a village is over $500 a month, spread across about 10 people. To convince them that an extra $40 a month would ensure a regular water supply is still ‘a work in progress’.
CER’s ‘strategic plan’ has been a work in progress as well for most of its time. The main part of the plan intends the community to be in the villages, slowly becoming a trusted part of the village community, listening and over the last few years having regular meetings with the leaders. In 2001 CER commenced sending Timorese to Nudgee International College (NIC) for a 10 week English course. About twenty people were able to attend NIC and five or six of these are emerging as future leaders in the villages. Ludi was invited back to Australia by the Mission Society a few years back to speak about Timor Leste. We are not sure how much the Mission Society benefited but CER has received well over $100 000 from one parish group to whom he spoke, and the Warwick parish continues to send a large donation annually.
After about two years in Timor Leste, as well as a three month sabbatical in Ireland, the possibility of new projects began to surface for me. A Rotary team that had visited in 2002 asked: “Can we help the villages by funding and installing small solar lighting systems?” This project commenced in 2003 and Inverell Rotary, aided by Greg Moran’s application to Rotary International, brought in over $100 000, enabling well over a thousand homes to have solar lighting.
CER has been blessed with three Religious Sister volunteers: Charity Sister Chris Jorgensen, a nurse; Good Shepherd Sister Rita Hayes, a ‘retired’ high school principal who taught English and helped in schools; and Notre Dame Sister Gael Henry from New Zealand, who established sewing groups in the villages aided by Joanna and Theresina.
Focus on education
Sam Drumm, another ER camper from New Zealand, was a volunteer in 2005, and ‘found’ a few locals to start some pre-school teaching. The Mary MacKillop group helped with initial training then Anne Fisher, another New Zealander and a pre-school teacher, firmly established five pre-schools. This, under the leadership of Brother Richard Walsh for three years, has since grown to eight pre-schools with 25 well trained teachers, four of whom now have certificates from Australian Catholic University.
Two major events occurred in Timor Leste in 2006. One was the return of major unrest and riots to nearly match the 1999 situation. The other was the October graduation of the first 50 students from the ACU/Marist teachers college in Bacau, a town in the east of Timor Leste. The Education Department was fairly dysfunctional and had no intention of employing any of these well trained teachers. So discussions with Mario da Cruz, the chefe of Deleco, led to Egas and Ezechiel being ‘employed’ by CER to work in the local Government branch school. At that stage it was just a school of sorts: a teacher used to walk the four kilometres (sometimes) and if any kids noticed, the three or four of them would spend some time with him in the run-down bamboo school building with its bamboo desks and seats. Two years later, funded by CER donations of $20 000, the locals had built a 4-room school which now has a regular attendance of about eighty students and four fulltime teachers, ‘assisted’ by a Government-paid teacher who comes ‘sometimes’.
The success of this initiative led to discussions with chefes in Railaco Kraic and Samalete. Teachers and buildings were provided with the help of the Terrace Timor Network, an outreach of St Joseph’s College Gregory Terrace, and HELPS – a builder from Hutchinson’s building company together with teachers and students from St Edmund’s College, St Patrick’s College, St Laurence’s College, and Siena College Sippy Downs. HELPS first came in 2010 and will make their third trip in 2012. Four classrooms have been built, a combined effort of Manual Arts teachers, Year 11 Vocational Education students, local men, and Timorese ladies catering.
In 2012 these three Government schools operate with fifteen CER-paid ‘volunteer’ teachers and four Government-paid teachers who still come ‘sometimes’. Again a work in progress to change the culture, to change the mentality of the teachers – that the benefit to the students rates at least equal to the financial benefit to the teacher. The efforts of the CER volunteers who initially taught English in the schools alongside the Timorese teachers have been very significant in changing this mindset. Since 2010 they have provided direct one-on-one training - among them Katrina, Renee, Emily, Helene, Loretta, and Jennifer. Five of the CER teachers are ANU/Bacau graduates while the other ten have received over a hundred hours training from CER.
School immersions commenced in 2004 with Year Ten from St Joseph’s Gregory Terrace. From this experience grew the Terrace Timor Network (TTN), a parent group at the college which now provides close to $50 000 a year to CER. TTN initiated the 60-strong ladies group at Raliaco Kraic making greeting cards as a result of which each of the ladies will be paid wages of $240 in 2012, an increase of more than 25% in their family income. In 2009, TTN formed a partnership with Blue Sky coffee in Brisbane to sell Timorese coffee and CER is now able to distribute $15 000 a year to growers to compensate for income loss from pruning 100 000 trees annually at 15 cents a tree.
Late in 2010 the Norwegian Refugee Service decided to move on from Timor Leste and asked CER if it might take the role of overseeing the vocational education centre operating for 60 students in nearby Gleno. In a visit to CER in December 2010, Brendan Lawler and Michael Carroll, the principals of St Edmund’s Ipswich and St Patrick’s Shorncliffe, agreed that supporting this project was close to the ethos of their Edmund Rice schools and they, together with St Laurence’s South Brisbane, have agreed to send $25 000 a year to assist STVJ Gleno and other CER projects.
A personal view
Have I enjoyed the ride since 21 June 1999, my mother’s 90th birthday, when it was suggested in the leadership team that I be responsible for CER? There were many challenges but every so often I was conscious of trying “to bring good news to the poor” and education for the “poor little ones”.
In a Developing World situation, births and deaths were never far away. I think of 20-year-old Afonso killed on his motorbike at 5am in Dili as his aunt Ireni gave birth to a new son, of course named Afonso – a joyous occasion particularly as her previous baby was a stillbirth, but dampened by her nephew’s death. I recall the joy of Mariana, a local lady and graduate from teacher’s college, teaching in her own village, giving birth to her second child, a greater joy as her first had also died. There was also the sadness of Joanico’s 3-month-old baby dying; of Pedro’s 6-month baby dying just two weeks after he had returned from work experience at St Edmund’s Ipswich…
Possibly CER’s mobile clinic and health outreach has been the most significant contribution. 4-year-old Shanaida’s osteoporosis was cured and she now walks. 3-year-old Cecelia’s cataracts were removed and she now sees. This month Afonso and Eliana come to Australia for leg and hip surgery.
It has been a privilege to share so closely in the lives of these thousand families, being present to them, sharing with them some of Edmund’s compassionate dream and opening a few doors to a better future for them and Timor Leste.
Christian Brother Bill Tynan
Published July 2012
Photographs by Brother Peter Coe