Meaningful connections

A recent immersion trip by Australian students to a rural area in Timor-Leste had an unexpected result. The country’s President himself fast-tracked the first internet connection to the remote village school.


By Leanne Broadley, Xavier Catholic College Ballina, NSW (a Jesuit Companion School)

If you’re ever on an international scavenger hunt and your challenge is to find the only place in the world (well, outside of Ballina, that is!) where the Xavier Catholic College (XCC) Ballina crest is displayed, give me a call. But if you don’t have my number, fly to Dili, capital of Timor-Leste. Then drive four hours up the mainly unsealed road to the remote village of Turiscai. That’s where you’ll find Our Lady of Fatima High School. Any student or teacher will take great pride in showing you the XCC crest on their brand-new wing of classrooms.

What’s the connection between the two schools, you may ask? Well, read on.

In 2019, XCC signed a Sister-School Memorandum of Understanding with Our Lady of Fatima High School in Turiscai. The co-ed school, which then had about 450-500 students sharing a single pit toilet, was not chosen at random; nor was this some spur-of-the-moment decision. Broadly speaking, the aim was to create and develop an ongoing relationship with a remote community, providing opportunities for students from both schools to develop a mutual understanding and build a valuable sense of cultural awareness.

While Turiscai has an elevation of about 900 metres, it is actually perched in a valley between two soaring mountains, so the first thing that grabs your attention is the view. It’s not far from Mount Ramelau, the country’s tallest mountain, and from the balcony of the village presbytery, you can see the peak of the mountain, seemingly reaching up to the heavens. Because you are so high above the plains, the sky seems clearer, the space wider and more vast, while the view is far more panoramic than you’d expect.

Glance down to your right and there is the soaring bell tower of the Catholic church in the centre of the village. The church is built in a Portuguese style and painted a brilliant white. The hill continues down into the village, where some homes are made of stone, some of painted brick, some of corrugated tin, alongside other traditional huts with thatched roofs. At the top of the village lie the ruins of an old Portuguese homestead destroyed in World War II, now crumbling with trees growing through it.

The church is the first thing you notice as the bumpy road turns a corner. The village appears unexpectedly and the church is a bright white beacon of hope, built high into the side of the hill. The rest of the village is clustered around the one main road basically a dirt road with a few buildings, an open space used as a market, a hardware shop and people selling bananas, coconuts, or drying coffee beans on large blankets in the sun.

One of the main roads in Turiscai, leading up to the church at the top of the hill. Photo courtesy of Xavier Catholic College (XCC) Ballina.

The road down into the village is lined with homes, and there are always people on the front doorsteps older folks sitting and chatting, children playing soccer, mothers with babies on their hips. As we drove in on the long, winding, bumpy road, every single person would stop, wave and give us the biggest smile we had ever seen. Every farm animal you could imagine was wandering free along the side of the road. There were dogs, chickens, goats, pigs and Timorese ponies, but they all seemed intuitively to know where they lived and so there was no need for fences. It became a game for our XCC students to learn the names of all these animals in Tetum, the language of the Timorese.

The smell of cooking by woodfire permeates the area, where all homes cook on these fires. The sound of the Angelus bell ringing loudly wakes the village for prayers at 5:30am, even before the roosters begin their chorus. The bell is a sound I will never forget, because it was struck by hand really close to where we slept! The day we arrived coincided with a village wedding and the other sound I will never forget is the music of the wedding party that went on all night long, before respectfully stopping at 7am just before Sunday Mass. The Timorese people know how to celebrate!

Because of the pandemic, border closures and the clampdown on travel, we were unable to visit Turiscai from 2020 to 2022, but returned joyfully in July this year. In the three-year interim, our fundraising continued nonetheless and we were able to raise enough money to finance the building of three additional classrooms, a toilet block and a computer lab.

But our support for their school goes beyond mere fundraising, and both schools benefit from time spent in each other’s company to create friendships and reinforce our shared faith. XCC has an annual two-week immersion program that our Year 11 students can apply for. They then get to spend time with the students in Turiscai, build meaningful relationships, learn about Timorese culture and immerse themselves in an environment that is probably unlike anything they’ve experienced before. In addition, they also attend classes with students in the village and help teach them conversational English.

These immersions normally take place during the September school holidays, but we made a post-pandemic exception this year, moving it forward to the July holidays to include some Year 12 students who wanted to go, including our school captain. Next year, it will revert to a September trip for Year 11 students only.

The Xavier Catholic College Ballina crest in Turiscai, Timor-Leste. Photo: XCC

When we returned to Turiscai this July, 15 of us (a dozen students from Years 11 and 12, along with three staff members) were warmly welcomed into the school. Immediately, we could see how much our fundraising had helped.  The students were all incredibly excited about the computer room, and we were surprised by being invited to an unveiling ceremony – the XCC crest had been carefully embedded into the wall outside the computer lab.

Their brand-new computers were set up with all the latest software, although at the time, students had no access to the internet due to the remote location of the school. That situation, however, was to change swiftly and in a way we could not possibly have envisaged.

While in the country, our XCC students received an invitation to the Palace for an audience with the President of Timor-Leste, His Excellency Dr Jose Ramos-Horta, who was delighted to hear about the sister school connection between Xavier and the Turiscai school. He was very appreciative of the friendship between the two schools as well as the financial support we provide. As a result, the President then invited our students to have lunch with him after the official audience, so as to continue the discussion.

To cap it all off, the immersion team also met with members of the Republic’s new government and had a round table discussion with their Education Minister. As a direct result of these discussions with our students, the government of Timor-Leste swiftly initiated a pilot internet program for Turiscai, fast-tracking connectivity for students of Our Lady of Fatima High School. Thanks to the government treating this as a priority, the students in Turiscai can continue to build friendship and connections through an inter-school Zoom English conversation program, a first for Timor-Leste.

On Thursday 31 August, President Ramos-Horta, the Minister for Education and the Cardinal of Timor-Leste all made the trip up to Turiscai to launch this program and we were actually able to have the first-ever Zoom meeting from the computer classroom we helped to fund!

Xavier Catholic College Ballina students and staff in the Presidential palace of Timor-Leste. Photo: XCC.

Prayer, naturally, is an integral part of the culture at XCC. The words, “For our brothers and sisters in Turiscai, Timor-Leste, we pray,” forms the conclusion of every prayer that is said in our school. These immersions started as a simple idea seven years ago to give our students an opportunity to experience a different culture and to participate in social justice initiatives. This has now grown into an international pilot program, with our students actually working alongside the President of Timor-Leste to bring improved educational outcomes for students in the remote village of Turiscai.

In the words of Year 12 immersion participant Landon: “I am so grateful for the opportunity to visit Timor-Leste on the school Immersion, to meet their President in person and hear his personal opinions and experiences. Our Zoom call to the President when he visited our sister school was a real highlight. Our connection to Turiscai, as well as our advocacy, has allowed that community to be seen and to be visible to the Government of Timor-Leste. It is amazing to see how our involvement and friendship with the students in Turiscai is really making a difference in their lives.

Like Landon, I thought it was incredible to see the Timor-Leste leaders at work. Within six weeks of our arrival, the village had an internet connection, and the official launch actually brought the leaders of Timor-Leste into Turiscai to the very computer classroom we funded. I am excited about seeing this program take off and the benefits it will have for students in both communities, as we strive for the Magis and seek to be people for others.

For me personally, both as a teacher and as leader of the immersion program, I see young people growing into agents of positive change for the future. Having led five different groups of students on immersion experiences, I derive so much from watching them grow, seeing them step out of their comfort zones and step up to do things they would never think of doing in Australia.

Xavier Catholic College Immersion Trip

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At a traditional house in Turiscai. Photo: XCC

I also love seeing students open up to the idea of a personal God, with daily prayer and Mass being a big part of the immersion. Living in the Presbytery with religious communities means that our students are also more open to exploring their own faith. There have been so many late-night conversations and prayers with students who are on their own faith journeys, and it makes my heart sing to know that they are drawing closer to their creator.

My biggest desire is to serve God with the gifts he has given me, and I find that when I am in Timor-Leste it is so easy to be close to God, making sure that each day is bookended with prayer. Finding God in each obstacle that is overcome, in every challenge and every blessing, as well as leading students and my colleagues in this experience is life-changing for me. Not once or twice, but every single time.

I am also amazed that our immersion program has had such an impact, with the government taking notice and getting on board to support the remote school. I am incredibly grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of setting up this program, and I am just so proud of our school’s involvement in this MoU.

Personally, I have developed strong bonds of friendship with many Timorese people over the years we have been going on the immersion program, and I love reconnecting with them when we take our students over, and to see how our support has made a tangible difference in their lives. I now also have a brand-new baby godson there and will be heading back soon to attend his baptism. I feel as though I am deeply connected to this country and its people.

Leanne Broadley is Leader of Learning, Creative Arts and Immersons, at Xavier Catholic College Ballina