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Uni students supporting Marist mission in Timor Leste

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Students from Catholic residential college Aquinas are fundraising and learning about the culture of Timor Leste in readiness for an immersion program later this year.

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During their 10-day visit to the Baucau Diocese in September the group of 15 young people aged 19 to 22 will find themselves assisting at the local medical clinic and outreach clinics in the mountain villages. They will also work with primary school students, educating them about health issues and helping them with their English studies.

While the immersion program will enable the students the opportunity to put into practice some of the skills they have gained in their university nursing and teaching courses, it will also allow them to witness first-hand how the Marist Brothers – who look after Aquinas College – have helped to develop education and health services in the impoverished country over the past two decades.

Br Mark with Jayden and Eliza

Accompanying the students on this year’s program is Aquinas chaplain Br Mark Paul, one of the Marists involved in establishing the Catholic Teachers College in Timor Leste, after it fought for and gained independence from Indonesian occupation in 1999.

“It was certainly one of the most challenging projects I have ever undertaken. Building a teacher training system was no walk in the park,” Br Mark told The Southern Cross.

“Gaining the confidence of the people was vital to its success. A culture with resistance as part of the local DNA, having had a long history of occupation, required patience, building trust where we could together create what has become a very successful teacher training institution in the country.”

Education is central to the mission of the Marist Brothers and by training students in modern teaching techniques – which in turn inspire young people to want to study – the Brothers are indeed playing a part in changing the future of the small country to the north of Australia.

About the size of Tasmania and with a population around 1.3 million, Timor Leste is listed as the third poorest country by the World Bank, with most people living on less than $2 a day.

With 95 per cent of the population Catholic, the locals over time have welcomed Church organisations from Australia and overseas that have played an important part in rebuilding the country. Br Mark said students from Aquinas College taking part in the immersion program were always humbled by the experience.

“Last year the two students involved were overwhelmed by the health issues facing the villagers, but also overwhelmed by the welcome and openness of the people, they were so willing to be accepting,” he said.

Eliza Boulton and Jayden Byrne, both originally from Mildura and previously residents at Aquinas, described their immersion in the Timor Leste community as “so fulfilling” and said they would be keen to return one day to volunteer their services.

For Eliza, who will complete her universities studies in teaching in a few weeks, it’s changed her approach to being a teacher.

“It was really valuable to see the teaching conditions – they are just in square classrooms with a blackboard and yet they make it work, compared to in Australia where we are lucky to have all the bells and whistles,” she said.

“It was such a rewarding experience. Just a little bit of hard work from us and the care and attention given to them over there was so greatly appreciated and meant such a lot to them.

“I’ve now got a much better awareness of what other people are going through and their living conditions in comparison to ours, and yet we’re only an hour’s flight away. How contrasting it is, is pretty extraordinary.”

Jayden, who is currently studying radiotherapy, said being able to help in the health clinic and see the facilities they have was quite humbling.

“I certainly have a much better appreciation for what we have,” he said.

Br Mark said the immersion program also became, in some way, an “evangelising process” for participants.

“Students of this age are often struggling with their faith…there is so much questioning that goes on by students about the meaning and purpose of life.

“Through the program they often see how they need to open their hearts to a world greater than their own, rethinking the meaning and purpose of what they are currently studying.”

In readiness for their visit to Timor Leste the students are meeting regularly to learn about the local culture and are fundraising – mainly through sausage sizzles held on football days at Adelaide Oval – hoping to fund a $1500 scholarship to support one student teacher.

Br Mark said the establishment of the Catholic Teachers College had been possible only through the combined efforts of organisations within the Catholic Church. Financial support was received from various overseas aid agencies, and the Australian Catholic University – which endorsed the Bachelor of Teaching degree course – and the Mercy Sisters and Loreto Sisters were also involved in the mission. For the past two years Br Paul Gilchrist, who was previously head of Aquinas College, has been serving as the director of the training institution.

In 2010 the Marist Brothers established a training house for Brothers and currently 25 young men are in formation in Timor, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Fr John Herd, parish priest at Murray Bridge, has an ongoing engagement in the formation of priests in the Dili Diocese and since 2000 has been regularly spending time there each year.

 

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