Margaret and David: Margaret & David Hall’s CommUNITY News no. 1

Maria Regina (second from left) and her family
Even before we met each other we had both wanted to do voluntary work. I wanted to go to South America and Dave wanted to go to Africa. The years went by very quickly and life took us in all sorts of directions. Our thoughts of voluntary work were put on the back burner. Then a few years ago we were chatting and commented that we had never got around to doing voluntary work and we were not sure that now we ever would. The very next Sunday whilst at Mass we saw a notice asking for Palms volunteers. As we both believe in divine intervention we decided to apply.

From attending the Palms Orientation Course we soon realised that we were part of a network of committed caring people. We made many friends who later on would contribute to the joy of us living in our new country. Then when we returned to our own home, we found that family, friends and colleagues were all willing to help and wish us well. We were introduced to Friends and Partners of East Timor (FPET), a wonderful organisation would become a vital link and support. We work with Peter de Haas of Connect East Timor (CET), an organisation that puts radios in remote villages. Deacon Gary Stone who is chaplain to the Armed Forces and the AFP and a committed patron of the Atabae district, has been a tower of strength to us.

So we arrived in Timor Leste not feeling alone but part of a big caring family. Dave’s work was to be Project Officer working very closely with FPET and coordinating their projects and CET. My work was to be Community/Preventive/Public Health in particular Maternal and Child Health.

As our flight approached Timor Leste we had no idea as to what our new home looked like until these beautiful mountains came into view. We were welcomed on our arrival at the airport by Father Marsellus and Palms’ volunteer Cheree. The journey from the Airport to the SVD Fathers, who were kindly looking after us for our two days in Dili, was one of excitement and sadness. Excitement at being in Timor Leste and the smiling faces of the people and sadness at some of the poor state of buildings and roads.

From attending the Palms Orientation Course we soon realised that we were part of a network of committed caring people.

Some of the smiling faces of Atabae
We collected our Troop Carrier, which had been donated by the Australian Army, and set off for our new home. Fr Marsellus led in his vehicle and we followed. Mountains surround Dili but our road followed the coastline. There are several kilometres where the road hugs the mountain on one side and there is a steep drop on the other. It was all very beautiful. The people waved and we waved back. Later, on our many journeys up and down this road, we would pick up children going to and from school and give them a lift. Some children walk over 2 hours to attend school. When we reached the Loas River Fr Marsellus stopped his vehicle. We joined him on the bridge and he said ‘Welcome to Atabae.’ It was then that it became real. We had arrived.

When we arrived we were greeted by Senor Alfredo (Senior Nurse and Team Leader) and his wife Joanna and their family. What a wonderful welcome! Senor Alfredo said ‘We welcome our Australian family.’ We felt immediately at ease and comfortable.

The next morning after Mass a lovely lady, Berta, gave us a beautiful welcome. The Timor Leste way is to take the right hand and bring it to their face in respect. We tried to reciprocate but this was definitely a no-no. This we find a great compliment and humbling. All we can do is say thank you. Berta and I are now very close. She speaks no English and my Tetum is not so hot. When we walk together she teaches me Tetum -I say goat, she says bibi – I say pig, she fahi. Now, many people join in and we all have a good laugh.

Berta was our introduction to village people and their kindness and sharing nature. It was also the first time we realised how big we are and how small they are. Yet they are very strong and hard working. The people walk miles to work and carry heavy loads. The women in particular carry great weights on their heads.

The first Sunday Fr Marsellus introduced us at the Mass. We were asked to say a few words. Dave did the talking and Fr Marsellus translated. We both felt nervous and prayed that we would not be a disappointment to the people. Instead the people are so grateful that their Australian family has not forgotten them. All help is gratefully received and there is a hunger for knowledge and skills. But of course in reality we have learned much more.

These young people work alongside us and are now training others and passing on the skills and knowledge learned.

David assists with a youth workshop on conflict
Palms advises its volunteers to go slowly at first and get to know the people. As our house fronts the main road we decided to place our two lounge chairs on the front veranda during the day. From here we got a wonderful vision of village life: the people leaving and returning to fields; the children going to and from school; the microlets (buses) passing from Dili to Maliana.

Our first priority was to form a community committee group to advise on their needs and order of importance. It is essential that the people have ownership of any projects and changes that are made and are part of the solution. This committee is a cross section of the community and already other villages are joining in.

We met with senior members of the community and very soon people started to approach us and ask for help and advice. The first person to see us needed help with a wheelchair-bound child. This mother was widowed with three other children and had limited movement in her own right arm. She was tired and asking for the child to be placed in an orphanage. This family is now being sponsored by an Australian family. A carer now helps with the personal needs of the girl and is also a friend and companion. She now is taken to community events and will attend school. With the help of FPET a ramp is being put at the Church so that she may now attend services.

We now work with two young Trainee Managers in project work and health. These young people work alongside us and are now training others and passing on the skills and knowledge learned. We have several volunteer workers who are also teaching other volunteers in other villages. Our work is very much out in the communities and we work closely with the Government Health Clinic in Atabae and the Bairo Pite Health Team in Dili.

We have now been here a year and in that time we have learned so much and yet we are quite sure we are only just starting. The people have opened their hearts to us and we certainly feel very much at home. Our house feels like home and with our cat Milo who adopted us and looks after the house -what more could we ask for. The people have included us in celebrations, sports events, district choral competitions, community picnics on the beach and sad events when a loved one dies. We have now laughed with them and cried.

Through all this time we have merely been the people on the ground. Without the wonderful organisations and people supporting us we would not be here and could not do this work. For this say we thank you.

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Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have. - Emile Chartier