Leste we forget

An immersion to Timor-Leste each July gives students a chance to experience
life-changing moments of service and a deeper appreciation of “the other”.

 WALKING WITH THE EXCLUDED 

During their first few days in Railaco, Timor-Leste, the members of the immersion group assisted during the feeding program run by Jesuit Mission. All photographs: Danusia Kaska

By Danusia Kaska, Coordinator of the Xavier Social Justice Network 
and leader of the upcoming 2024 immersion to Timor-Leste  

The heat and humidity hit us as we disembarked from the plane and walked onto the tarmac at Dili airport with a mixture of excitement, anticipation and lack of sleep. We waited in a queue in the hot sun until we were able to enter the terminal building to process the eighteen visas for our group. While we waited outdoors, we enjoyed the dappled shade from the tropical plants that lined our way, while the Timorese officers checked our documents.   

Because we had just left the winter of our eastern capital cities of Australia in the mid-year school holiday break, this heat of Timor-Leste was a shock to the system. Our group comprised fifteen enthusiastic students and three staff members, all of whom were from six different Jesuit and Companion schools (JACSA) from around Australia.  

The entire 2023 immersion group in front of the landmark Cristo Rei (Christ the King) statue in Dili.

Our introduction to the bloody and brutal history of Timor Leste was confronting but a much-needed lesson in history to prepare us for what lay ahead during our two-week immersion with Jesuit school communities. We visited the Resistance Museum, the Portuguese-era torture prison at Chega and the site of the 1991 massacre at Santa Cruz Cemetery. We also heard about the sacrifices of the Timorese criados, the young boys who carried Australian soldiers’ equipment, tended to the wounded and used their local knowledge to act as terrain guides.  

From Dili we journeyed over bumpy unmade roads to a rural region in the mountains, called Railaco, where the Jesuits run a mobile medical clinic, a feeding program and the NOSSEF boarding school, with its name derived from “Escola Secundaria Católica Nossa Senhora de Fátima”. 

After the initial overwhelming surprise of being excitedly welcomed Timorese-style by hundreds of children and teachers and being invited up on stage as special guests, everyone quickly found their rhythm and got involved with the many happenings at NOSSEF. Our students eagerly engaged in the classrooms, helping to teach the children while forming beautiful friendships, despite the language barrier, with teachers, Jesuits, volunteers, Sisters of Charity and the local community.  

The way in which our students accompanied others through attentive listening, engaging in sport and cultural dances, praying solemnly and singing passionately together was true testament to “being men and women for others”, as well as “cura personalis” – caring for the whole person and “magis” – while striving to live more deeply. 

The days were full and there was much to do. Everyone was busy from the moment the roosters crowed at 5am. The dorm boys woke and started singing while doing their chores, and the days ended with the evening prayer and Examen reflection followed by lights out at 10.30pm. Despite the very full program, everyone was enriched and exhilarated at Railaco. 

The language barrier was no hurdle when members of the immersion group posed outside the dormitory for girls attending the NOSSEF boarding school. 

One of the students said: “The opportunity of participating in the mobile medical clinic and feeding program enhanced the immersion experience and opened the eyes of the group to obvious problems that still exist in the modern day, regarding medication and food supply.”   

After a wonderfully rewarding week of living in this close-knit community in Railaco, the next stage was a visit to another Jesuit school community close to the capital city of Dili – St Ignatius of Loyola College in Kasait, where the 1,000 students come from mixed backgrounds.  

Once again the students thoroughly immersed themselves in the daily events of the College community and formed friendships over table tennis games, singing hymns at Mass, learning Timorese dances, playing sport, planting trees, teaching in classrooms and visiting families in their villages, to name a few activities. The interactions were deeply respectful and full of love, while God’s presence was strongly evident in each of them. Each student developed their personal relationship further with God through these rich encounters, as well as growing individually and getting to know themselves better. 

The Immersion group visiting the Australian Embassy in Dili, capital of Timor-Leste.

One student said eloquently: “It is my duty to take everything I’ve been given and use it to make everything around me more fulfilling and beautiful”.  

While the students were astonished to see that people who have so little can be so happy, this made them reflect on their own individual desires for material possessions. Never was there a complaint, a negative word spoken, or disconnection from an activity. It was a moment of feeling great pride in such an amazing group of young people.  

Another lesson that permeated was summed up accurately and sincerely by one of the Australian students, who said: “On reflection, it became clear that we learnt so much more from the Timorese than we could ever have taught them”. It was an awakening, because they had all expected to come and serve and minister to the Timorese people, yet they found themselves fulfilled and spiritually enriched in a way they could not have predicted. 

Banner image by Tonygers, Canva.