Michael and Cheree: Michael & Cheree Flanagan’s CommUNITY News no. 4

Continuing the relationship: Michael, Cheree and Daniel with Ahisaun community
Dear Friends,

You may remember our most recent CommUnity Newsletter we wrote after returning to Australia, having been evacuated in late May. Well, unfortunately we write this, our final CommUnity Newsletter, also from Australia, having officially completed our placement prematurely.

In the previous Newsletter we outlined how we had been evacuated, but that once the situation improved, we were looking forward to returning. And indeed, this was our aim for many months after getting back to Australia. Unfortunately the overall situation has not improved sufficiently for our presence to be of great worth, and indeed the security situation is still tense. So, heeding the advice of our hosts in East Timor and in collaboration with Palms, we have decided that our placement is no longer tenable at present.

We sat around and chatted, like we had done so many times. We heard their stories of avoiding danger.

Cheree and Mic with the boys from Ahisaun - Alex, Sicu, David and Paulus
It was with great sadness that we faced this reality in late August, and even greater sadness that we shared this decision with our friends in East Timor. Once we made this decision, we then had to set about reorganising our lives back here in Australia. But at the same time, we also organised to return to East Timor for 10 days to say goodbye, collect our few belongings (and distribute most of them) and get some closure. So we headed off, arriving on 11 October and flying out of Dili on 20 October.

We were indeed very lucky to have this opportunity, and relished seeing our friends again, though of course it was very sad. We had prepared ourselves somewhat for how Dili would be different to the city we had loved while we had lived there. And indeed it didn’t take long to see the changes. At the airport was a huge refugee camp, where thousands of people are still living, afraid to go back to their houses. There are quite a few of these throughout the city. Then, driving into the city from the airport the destruction of houses, and in some cases whole neighbourhoods, pulled at the heartstrings.

On advice from our hosts, we didn’t stay with the family who had hosted us during our 14 months there, but instead in town. On our first day we went into work (Ahisaun), and it was wonderful to see our friends again. Five of the nine boys had returned to the house. They had enrolled in school, but in most cases school wasn’t on because students weren’t attending out of fear. In one case, one of the boys in the house went to school and was the only student, from a class of over 40, to attend! We sat around and chatted, like we had done so many times. We heard their stories about how they had avoided danger. The young boys were keen to tell me how, while they were in the camps, they had been able to see Australia’s World Cup game against Italy.

The next day we went to our house and set about the task of cleaning it and distributing our belongings. Again, it was wonderful to see our friends who we had lived with, as well as those in the neighbourhood, particularly the young children who we had invited to drawing every Wednesday afternoon. Our host family were so respectful to leave our house as we left it, and only moved in once we had moved our things out. They had also gone to the trouble of burying our television in the ground so it wouldn’t be stolen, and barricading the doors and windows (of course my only concern were my Billy Joel CDs). We were indeed relieved for our hosts that their house had been spared, unlike so many others, some of whom we knew. It was a delight to also meet their new little daughter, who had been born only a week earlier.

We spent the next few days seeing friends, attending to administrative things, as well as tying up some loose ends at work. We are lucky that there is another Palms person who is in East Timor who will be able to assist Ahisaun in the next 2 years. He is actually living in Ermera, 2 hours from Dili, working in a parish, but when things are calm he will be able to go into Dili and provide some continuity from our work.

The biggest thing that we will take from our short return visit is the continued resilience of the people there. There is indeed still great hope in the people, that they will get through this and build a great country, and even that the current divisions will be sorted. And of course our friends kept saying that they will have a bed for us and our children when we visit in the coming years!

There is indeed still great hope in the people, that they will build a great country.

Cheree and Mic with Edu and Domingus
As for our leaving early, we are indeed disappointed that this was the only option in the end. The farewells at the airport were emotional, but wonderful. I was reminded of a past Palms volunteer who had said on his return, that his hosts had understood a lot more than he had, that he had to return to his home, and indeed this was our feeling as we said goodbye.

As this is our final CommUnity Newsletter, we want to thank you all for your interest and support of us during our time in East Timor. We wanted to make it an experience that our Australian community could be a part of, and indeed the support we have received has been quite overwhelming, and made it so much more meaningful. We can return knowing people have an understanding of our experiences and a greater knowledge of our near neighbour country to the north.

We also want to thank the staff at Palms, who have been so wonderful in all our dealings. Their support, friendship and gentle advice was instrumental in us having a very positive experience, despite the struggles.

And finally we want to thank our hosts, the community of Ahisaun, Fr Adrian Ola and Mario, Ervina and their family, who invited us into their lives and cared for us like their own family.

We ask that you all continue praying for the wonderful people of East Timor, and particularly the community of Ahisaun.

Love and God Bless,
Michael and Cheree

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Volunteers don't get paid, not because they're worthless, but because they're priceless. - Sherry Anderson