I have previously reviewed From Timor Leste to Australia, which was written by schoolkids, and edited by Jan. It was so inspiring that I invited Jan to have a public chat with me.
Jan, you’ve just had a book published, and it’s actually the work of a bunch of high school students in your care. How did this project come about?
Over many years I have had an interest in the history of the East Timorese and their small island country, one of our closest neighbours. During 1975, many Timorese refugees came to the Enterprise Migrant Hostel in Springvale, a place I often visited at that time. I well remember hearing of six women with newborn babies arriving, who had escaped the Indonesian invasion.
When I was appointed in 1994 as the inaugural principal of Gleneagles College, I soon met some of the East Timorese families, former refugees who were now living in the Endeavour Hills/Narre Warren communities. Some enrolled their children in my school. Many families from Timor had formed the Endeavour Hills United Soccer Club, which used the reserve adjacent to the school grounds, and many worshipped at the local Catholic Church.
Following the overwhelming Vote for Independence by the East Timorese in 1999, many in our school community were shocked by the ensuing violence and devastation. We reached out to our local families who were anxious for the safety and welfare of their relatives left behind in ET.
When I retired from Gleneagles at the end of the 2001 school year, I joined with a group of likeminded people who also wanted to support the newly established democratic nation of Timor-Leste. We formed the community-based group Friends of Ermera in 2002. We encouraged schools in our area to form friendship links with schools in the Ermera District of Timor-Leste. Gleneagles College was one of those schools. Over the years these friendship links have developed, and several schools now have annual or biannual student visits to TL.
We have come to meet and develop friendships with the ET local families who settled in our area. Gradually they began to share with us their incredible stories of survival.
Knowing the basic history of ET, I began to realise that these incredible stories were woven into this history over several generations. I felt compelled to find some way of having these stories documented, particularly as some of the grandmothers and grandfathers were becoming frail and they had first hand stories going back to the 1920s.
Fortunately, others shared this passion to document these stories and so the project was born.
We realised that having students meet and interview the family members would provide both an excellent educational opportunity for them, and would further empower the Timorese people, as they would realise that other Australians were taking their stories seriously. The Principal and teachers at Gleneagles College were enthusiastic. Knowing that there would be costs involved at the beginning of 2016, we applied for a City of Casey Community Grant.
I’m amused that the first thing you mentioned was soccer. I had some years of involvement with aid for another area in Timor Leste. We asked them a list of projects they wanted funds for. Top priority was a soccer field.
Jan, please tell us a little about the book.
I will mention a few of the milestones along the way.
Meeting up! The mayor of the day held a reception inviting the students, their parents, their teachers and members of the families whose stories were to be told. It was a wonderfully happy occasion, which acknowledged the significance of this project. Following a few formalities, speeches by the mayor, a representative of the students and one of the family members, the students introduced themselves to the families. I stood back and observed the enthusiasm of the students and the delight of the families. I will attach some photos taken that night.
Students learn about the history and culture of Timor-Leste. Several weeks were devoted to this preparation.
First interview! Pedro Baptista offered to visit the class and be the guinea pig interviewee. He was a hit and when he invited the class to go with him on his next visit back to Timor, they were all ready to go.
Professional writer mentors the students and prepares them for the interview process.
Writing workshop! Two teachers accompanied the students to an offsite venue where they were encouraged to begin writing up their interviews.
The launch, a final celebration! Once again, the mayor hosted this fantastic event. Authentic Timorese culture was formally provided by Timor Furak, the premier dance group who came from Dili especially for this occasion. The students and senior family members were delighted when they were each presented with a book. Many commented that it was bigger and more impressive than they had imagined.
Are you able to share a few stories about the students who did the work? How have they benefited?
Many interviews were held in family homes and I often provided transport for the interviewing students. Following the introductions, they skilfully set up their phones to record the interviews, but mostly they began shyly.
At one interview, a grandson a little older than the students was listening to his grandmother tell the story of her rebellious father and how he eventually was killed by the Japanese soldiers. Hearing this story for the first time, he also began asking questions.
At another interview, the role of religion was mentioned. We realised that in that family lounge room among the group of students were two of the Hindu faith, one Buddhist and one Moslem and they were interviewing a Christian family. How fantastic!
I have headed this interview as “the best education,” because when I read the book, this was one of the two major aspects that impressed me.
These students attend a school that celebrates the many cultures represented in its community, and many of them are from first or second generation migrants. However, they have now had the special privilege of establishing rapport with family members from another culture and hearing their stories first hand.
The mentoring by both their teachers and the visiting professional writer developed their interviewing and their writing skills.
During the process, the students realised the responsibility they had to accurately capture these amazing stories.
Leaders developed among the groups who organised repeated interviews and phone calls, which were necessary to check and add details.
The Timorese in your community are the lucky ones, compared to today’s asylum seekers. Could you please comment on what is being done to people trapped in Nauru and on Manus Island?
As an Australian, I am ashamed of what Government policy has done and continues to do to those still in detention. Irreparable damage has been done to these individuals and no matter what professional comment is made by the medical staff who have visited the centres, the Government will not back down. Unfortunately, the Opposition is not willing or able to offer an alternative.
This policy is trashing our reputation among our neighbours. What right do we have to criticise the governance and lack of basic human rights within other nations when we allow this detention to continue? Sometimes I despair that all the values that were once considered to be so important in Australia are being eroded.
The Timorese came to Australia at a time when the government of the day had a humane attitude to refugees and migrants. The family reunion program allowed families to reunite and support each other to establish themselves, socially and economically. Many were welcomed to purpose-built migrant hostels where the services, including English classes, were all on hand. They were able to also gain employment and enrol their children at local schools before having to move out into rented accommodation.
Today, Government policy dumps refugees, the few who qualify, and migrants in the outer suburbs where public transport and basic services are poor. They then criticise them when they gather together for support.
Today, Government policy brands refugees as the enemy to be feared.
Who should read this book, and why?
Ideally, this book should be read by politicians and other decision makers who are responsible for today’s immigration policy and also responsible for the lack of effective settlement services for today’s recent arrivals. Maybe then they would reflect on the more humane approach former Australian Governments had to refugees and migrants, including the East Timorese, who came in the 1970s through to the 1990s.
Realistically, this inspirational read will be sought out by the many people who are interested in :
- Refugee stories told by families who have survived journeys from East Timor to Australia. Although these stories describe hardships and resilience, hope is their companion.
- The shared history of Australia and one of our nearest neighbours, the new nation of Timor-Leste.
- How East Timor’s culture (religion, language etc.), has been influenced by their history, and why and when people sought refuge from their country.
Universities offering community development and international studies could use these individual family stories as “case studies” for a range of their academic subjects.
Teachers in secondary schools will find this book a valuable addition to their classrooms. There are Notes for Teachers online to accompany this book.
There are several key ideas or themes which flow through this work that are relevant to many of the learning areas in the national curriculum: Family, War and dispossession, Refugees and immigrants, Human rights, Neighbourliness, and Citizenship.
The book could also be used to explore the values of Compassion, Courage, Fear, Freedom, Hope, Humility, Loyalty, and Resilience.
Where can it be bought, and where can readers post a review?
It can be ordered from Wild Dingo Press and bought at all good bookshops in Australia.
Readers can post a review on the website; under the book cover, click on REVIEWS beside DESCRIPTION.
I’ve also found it on Amazon