News: Crossing cultures: there to here

Veronica picking coffee berries
“My name is Veronica Babo. My family are from the Ermera district which is a coffee growing area. There are 10 children in my family. My parents were only farmers and so it was very difficult to look after so many children because we were very poor. My father died when I was 8 years old so I went to live in the orphanage and have grown up in the orphanage and boarding school of the Salesian Sisters since then. I still have many younger sisters and brothers so I want to find work so I can help my family.”

To build the capacity of individuals and strengthen institutions through the exchange of knowledge and skills…

There is a quiet revolution going on at Palms. Late last year, at an Australian Global Volunteer Network meeting, Marist Brother Chris Wills suggested opportunities existed for member organisations to facilitate what he called “reverse volunteering”. Palms’ model of development is founded on the idea of mutual exchange, rather than unidirectional skill transfer, in recognition of the value that all can bring to a relationship. How then, it was asked, might we use our expertise to run our program in reverse, providing the opportunity for members of our partner communities to travel to Australia to build relationships, exchange skills and develop cross-cultural understanding.

Earlier in the year, while on a field trip, Country Program Coordinator Christine O’Halloran and Timor-Leste In-Country Representative Barry Hinton had visited Linh at Venilale Vocational School for Girls, where she had been teaching English. They were quite impressed by the facilities and the programs run by the Salesian Sisters in hospitality. With Palms’ recent experience in the hospitality industry, it was not too difficult to imagine possibilities to further the relationship with Venilale Vocational School and the skills of some of the students.

Veronica with her family
And so, with the suggestion of “reverse volunteering” already in mind, when Linh called Palms to enquire further about “hospitality internship”, the time seemed right to begin a pilot project. With Linh’s and the Sisters’ help, two candidates were identified and the process to bring Veronica and Celina from Venilale to Sydney had begun. The girls will spend three months in Australia getting the chance to build their skills at The Fair Trade Coffee Company as well as experiencing a taste of the life and culture of Glebe.

To engage Australian communities and partner communities … so that each increases their awareness and enthusiasm to encourage just, sustainable, interdependent and peaceful development…

The Fair Trade Coffee Company has made quite a splash in Glebe since it was founded two years ago. A great number of people have learnt about the effects their purchasing choices have globally. Regular activities at the café encourage discussion, thought and engagement and have added to the sense of community. Many Australians, unable to take up an overseas placement, will now be touched by the lives of Veronica and Celina and connected to the richness of the culture of Timor-Leste. The connection will be particularly profound as Veronica’s family are coffee growers in Ermera District, one of the sources of the café’s award-winning coffee.

Celina (left) with her mother and sister
“My name is Celina da Silva. My family lived in the mountains in the district of Laga. My father died when I was 3 years old. We were very poor and my mother had great difficulty supporting me and my younger sister. A Salesian priest offered to take me and my sister to the orphanage and my mother asked to come too. Since then, my mother has been working as a housekeeper in the father’s house. I was adopted by a family and lived in Dili for 10 years but my mother asked for me to come back to the orphanage to start high school because she missed me very much. I like to play the guitar and sing. I give guitar lessons to the girls in the music group.”

To advance mutually enriching and challenging relationships of acceptance, understanding and care, to the point of sharing worlds of meaning in the deepest sense, with people of a culture different from one’s own…

Celina and her sister Maria
The connections between Sydney’s Inner West and Venilale, Timor-Leste, began prior to Linh’s departure with an education campaign incorporating numerous churches and schools across the region. Linh, raised in Marrickville and a former student of St Scholastica’s College in Glebe, is excited that the relationship can continue. “I was so privileged to share in Veronica and Celina’s lives and it is great that they can now experience ‘my world’.”

In addition to the ongoing relationship with Linh and new relationships with customers and staff, the girls will share in daily family life with the Read family, their host family in Glebe. It is through the open hands and open hearts of such people that this “reverse volunteering” is even possible. Celina and Veronica have shared their stories with Glebe and Pyrmont parishes and a fundraising concert will be held at Glebe parish on the 21st of September.

This pilot program will provide an interesting insight into other ways Palms Australia can use its expertise to grow in solidarity with its partner communities. In light of recent discussions by the federal government about Guest Worker programs, including a suggestion by Timor-Leste Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao to include hospitality as an area of interest, Palms may be well placed to extend this program further.

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The ideal of a single civilization for everyone, implicit in the cult of progress
and technique, impoverishes and mutilates us. - Octavio Paz