Michael and Cheree: Michael & Cheree Flanagan’s CommUNITY News no. 1

Members of Ahisaun
Dear Friends,

Welcome to the first edition of our CommUnity Newsletter. It is a real thrill to be writing this and to inform all our friends and supporters of our happenings and progress in East Timor.

As you know we left Australia’s shores on the morning of April 19 2005, having spent the night in Darwin, and arrived in Dili at about 8.30am. We were met at the airport by Nick and Jane (other PALMS volunteers) and the staff from Ahisaun. Our first stop was straight to our workplace. We were welcomed by the staff and a few of the boys who live at the centre, with both of us receiving a traditional tais (a hand-woven scarf). We were then taken to our new home. Our home is about a 20 minute walk from our workplace. Both are positioned in Comoro, a suburb of Dili, the capital of East Timor.

We live with the Director of Ahisaun and his family. His name is Mario, his wife is Ervina and they have a 7 month old baby Emiliana. Also living with them are Mario’s 3 nephews Obinu, Osamo and Joao. There is nearly always other friends/family who they put up for the night or for a meal. We have a part of the house to ourselves, and they live out the back in a separate section. Off the verandah at the front is a prayer room with a statue of Mary and every night without fail they light a candle in front of Our Lady.

It forced us to trust people we didn’t know and couldn’t talk to, reminding us of our spiritual relationship with God.

Cheree with some of the Ahisaun boys
The first week was a bit of a shock for us. Despite having a long time to prepare and being really excited about what lay ahead, the culture shock was just unbelievable. Along with the language difficulties, we felt very alone and isolated and at times wondered if we’d be able to manage it for two years. On top of that there was a huge protest in Dili and we were warned to take extra care at this time. Looking back now we value that time very much. Firstly, we have some sort of appreciation for what people face when they arrive to live in a different country and we were reminded of all our refugee friends we had met over the years who had been forced to do this. In our case though we had somewhere to go back to if necessary. Secondly, it forced us to trust people we didn’t know and couldn’t talk to, reminding us of our spiritual relationship with God. And thirdly, we value that time because we can appreciate even more all the little victories we have in ourselves and with our work.

Things settled down for us after that first week, and we began finding our feet. On our first Saturday we celebrated the baptism of Mario and Ervina’s baby which was a joyous occasion, being with our new family and their extended family. We have since settled into life here, marvelling at all the differences between the culture we came from and the culture here, finding our way around Dili and getting into work at Ahisaun.

One of the big challenges has been learning the language. There are 2 languages that are widely spoken here – Tetun (the native East Timorese lingua franca) and Bahasa Indonesian (brought in during the Indonesian period). Portuguese is the official language but is not widely spoken yet, while English also is only spoken by a minority of local people. The language we are learning is Tetun. We find the challenge of a new language really fun and are doing a bit each day. We are to the point where we can get across what we want to say in Tetun, but not yet able to converse naturally.

We marvel at the differences between the culture we came from and the culture here.

Cheree with some Timorese girls at Ahisaun
We have spent the first few months trying to find out as much as possible about our new workplace, their history, aims, future goals. We have also been busy networking with other NGOs, both local and international, forming connections and learning about the way things are done here. In addition, we have begun the task of seeking out funds for Ahisaun and writing proposals to prospective donors.

After consultation with the members and staff, we have both have taken on special projects at Ahisaun. As only boys are housed at Ahisaun, the members and staff identified the need to involve the female members more and to explore their wishes. As a result, Cheree has started a weekly creative women’s group, called Feto Grupu. Michael has taken on a special project of English teaching. After diving in head first to get an idea of the standard of English, he has set about gathering resources and setting a syllabus.

In peace,

Cheree and Michael

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There is both a moral and social responsibility attaching to these experiences of foreign cultures,
and if nothing awakens in our own soul, making claims and demands upon us,
calling us to change the way we live, then we have been merely parasites and invaders. - David Tacey