Have you ever heard of Timor-Leste? For those unaware, Timor-Leste is one of the world’s newest countries and also one of the poorest. Situated in South Asia between Indonesia and Australia, the half-island nation is home to a young and culturally diverse population of just over 1 million. The long fight for freedom that people of the region undertook resulted in nearly one-third of the population perishing. Nearly each family of the newly made country has seen near and dear ones killed during the struggle period.
Timor Leste has significant petroleum resources, but owing to the fact that most institutions are young and inexperienced, having limited human resource capacity, and poor infrastructure, the country is facing severe health challenges, particularly those affecting women and children. The country’s capital Dili is remotely connected to the Indian capital Delhi (interestingly, Delhi too in Hindi is written as Dilli). Despite the challenges, Timor-Leste has worked with diligence and courage since independence to establish its democratic institutions and a viable economy.
There is also a great need to improve agricultural capacity and performance; encouraging private sector competitiveness; building democratic institutions and good governance mechanisms, including anti-corruption systems; protecting the natural environment; and helping populations adapt to climate change. Due to great need for social work, USAID is working closely with Timor-Leste to cope up with the challenges that this new country is facing.
Most people in Delhi (Dilli) may not be aware about this new capital Dili, but there are unsung heroes from Delhi who continue to work selflessly even in as far and remote a country as Timor-Leste. One such hero is Iram Saeed, a Jamia Millia pass out social worker, and now an international development professional with expertise in empowerment of women and youth as well as community development. Having earlier worked for organisations such as Marie Stopes International, United Nations and other international NGOs, Iram moved to Timor-Leste to initiate and execute a social welfare project Santana Unipessoal.
Iram is a co-founder and Chief Development Officer of the project Santana Unipessoal, along with Bella Galhos, founder and a freedom fighter. Since moving to this new country, Iram is working among young Timorese children (along with youth and women), endeavouring to make leaders who will go on to rebuild Timor-Leste, which has only recently come out of the ashes of a brutal occupation and bloody struggle, and is still struggling with hunger, poverty, poor access to education and inefficient agricultural practices. Timorese, says Iram, are still scared of expressing themselves and a lot need to be done to bring them out from the trauma of brutal suppression that these people have been subjected to in the past.
In Bella Galhos, Iram has found an able leader and co-worker, who herself suffered dearly during the occupation period. During the 1975 invasion of her country by Indonesian forces led by regional strongman Suharto, Bella’s two brothers, aged four and six, were beaten to death by rifle butts. Her father was jailed for two years, placed in solitary confinement where he lived in his own filth on a ration of rotten food, occasionally having fingernails and toenails removed with pliers during interrogations. During the years of occupation, there was frequent gunfire in the tiny island country, the constant threat of rape and the mysterious deaths or disappearances of friends and family.
Bella was merely 13-year-old in 1985, when Indonesian soldiers caught her from a small East Timorese schoolhouse and forcefully injected Depo Provera, a contraceptive drug the Indonesian government used in its forced contraception and sterilization program, an injection that was again given to her during the two succeeding years. These atrocities suffered during the early years made Bella Galhos a strong woman with a strong drive to work for the liberation of her country and to experience for the first time life without military occupation. As a teenager, she got involved with the underground resistance, risking imprisonment, torture or death.
In fact, after each wave of violence, Galhos stepped up efforts to free East Timor from Indonesia’s grip. When a young political organizer was killed in 1991, Galhos helped organize a massive funeral procession and demonstration in Dili. When that event erupted into a mass killing, Galhos enlisted in the Indonesian military while secretly supporting the resistance. And when she endured the constant sexual assault at the hands of soldiers in Jakarta, she resolved to win the trust of the Indonesian government to represent East Timor in the Canada World Youth exchange program as an example of a compliant, pro-integration East Timorese youth.
Years later, Galhos along with her equally resolute co-worker Iram, are working to rebuild Timor-Leste through their untiring efforts. Iram is closely involved with Leublora Green School, the signature project of Santana, and the only educational institution in the country dedicated to teaching about and promoting economically and environmentally sustainable growth and development for the people of Timor-Leste. It offers courses free of charge to school children, as well as other Timorese people (with a focus on youth and women), to build leadership, encourage environmental stewardship, promote sustainable and efficient agricultural practices and inculcate the value of respect for oneself, other people and the world. Leublora Green School aims to become a source of inspiration for the country to protect and promote its unique natural heritage.
Leublora Green School is a unique concept in itself not providing classroom education alone but practical education as well into farming, rearing and other essential needs that the growing up Timorese children will face in future. And Iram does not only have to carry chalk and duster to teach but even sickle and spade, seeds and dung. Courses provide beneficiaries with: practical skills to engage with those around them and their natural environment in a productive and sustainable way; knowledge to lead their country towards sustainable development in an ethically and environmentally responsible manner; and, wisdom to understand the importance of respectful human resource and environmental management to the future of Timor-Leste and the world.
Interestingly, India’s ambassador to ASEAN and Timor-Leste, Gurjit Singh, visited Timor-Leste sometime back, to meet the then Prime Minister H.E. Mr. Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao, to discuss ways and means of increasing bilateral cooperation between the two countries. Ambassador conveyed the offer of Government of India to establish Centre of Excellence in Information Technology (CEIT) at Timor-Leste. In this regard a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) has been handed over by Ambassador to the Prime Minister. Welcoming the offer, Prime Minister H.E. Mr. Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao appreciated the initiative of Government of India in the field of Human Resource Development. To enhance economic cooperation, Ambassador offered to bring delegation of business people from India Business Forum (IBF), Jakarta which warmly accepted by the Prime Minister. Prime Minister also conveyed that Timor-Leste values its friendship with India greatly. India has also announced scholarship to teach 10 Timorese students in India each year.
India will surely do its bit to improve the lot of Timorese population but it is always heartening to note that there is an Indian, belonging to our own Delhi (Dilli), who is working a little distance away from Timorese capital Dili, with a resolve to change Timor-Leste, one life at a time.