November 11, 1999 - University of Washington: Brazil RPCV Elwin Wirkala helped supervise elections in East Timor

Peace Corps Online: Directory: East Timor: Peace Corps East Timor : The Peace Corps in East Timor: November 11, 1999 - University of Washington: Brazil RPCV Elwin Wirkala helped supervise elections in East Timor

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Brazil RPCV Elwin Wirkala helped supervise elections in East Timor

Brazil RPCV Elwin Wirkala helped supervise elections in East Timor

Eyewitness accounts of East Timor perils make for a gripping language course

A language that students understand

When it comes to training his first-year Portuguese students, Elwin Wirkala doesn’t stint on the grammar and spelling drills.

But his University of Washington students get truly absorbed when Wirkala shows them the videotapes he made two months ago while witnessing the perilous birth of Portuguese-speaking East Timor as Earth’s newest nation.

A volunteer international observer, Wirkala taped dozens of East Timorese from all walks of life during the treacherous two September weeks in which residents voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia and then faced murderous reprisals from pro-Indonesian militias.

With the avuncular, informal manner that makes him so approachable to his UW undergraduates, Wirkala coaxed Timorese strangers to describe not only the terrors but also the thrills of reaching for nationhood.

“It’s a great happiness for us, this day of voting,” Wirkala recorded a mother saying in Portuguese. But when Wirkala returned during the militia attacks a few days later, her house was boarded up and deserted.

On a recent morning, 20 UW students couldn’t help beaming at the cheerful Timorese children squirming for the attention of Wirkala’s video camera. The UW students’ faces then tightened with concern as the video shifted to mothers describing reports of killings at the school.

To help his first-year students follow along, Wirkala projected the words in Portuguese and English. But the students seemed even more transfixed when Wirkala turned off the monitor and described, in Portuguese, some of his East Timor experiences that didn’t get recorded !M! such as when a hostile militiaman punched him in the face, or when a newfound friend begged him to help find his missing son.

“Students’ idealism comes to the fore, their empathy is enlisted,” said Wirkala. “All you have to do is show them real life.”

Life experience is something that the 55-year-old Wirkala brings in abundance to his duties as a teaching associate in the division of Spanish and Portuguese studies of the Department of Romance Languages and Literature.

A one-time Peace Corps volunteer in remote northeastern Brazil, Wirkala stayed in Brazil for two decades as a businessman before joining the University of Washington as a teaching associate three years ago.

His mission to East Timor was sponsored by grants arranged by Vice Provost Steve Olswang from the Swartz International Studies Endowment, plus help from the UW Human Rights Education and Research Network (see article above). Support also came from David Hodge, dean of Arts and Sciences, and Michael Halleran, divisional dean for arts and humanities.

The 175 observers in Wirkala’s group hoped to “shield” Timorese as they voted to cast off a quarter-century of Indonesian rule. While little violence marred the election itself, Wirkala and his camera witnessed slaughter and devastation from pro-Indonesian forces after the vote: torched houses, spraying bullets and ransacked neighborhoods.

Eight thousand foreign peacekeepers have since begun to secure the fledgling nation as refugees trickle back, and Wirkala hopes to return to East Timor during winter break to translate for relief workers and to find out whether several people he met survived the terror.

That trip will doubtless convey more experiences that will carry his language lessons beyond verb-conjugation charts and random vocabulary lists.

“You kind of get emotionally attached,” said Shawn Brodland, a first-year Portuguese student. “You want to understand what he’s saying, so you really concentrate.” ¶

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Story Source: University of Washington

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - East Timor; COS - Brazil; Election Observers



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