January 1, 2004: Headlines: COS - East Timor: 142: Teresa Michael is a Health Care Educator in East Timor

Peace Corps Online: Directory: East Timor: Peace Corps East Timor : The Peace Corps in East Timor: January 1, 2004: Headlines: COS - East Timor: 142: Teresa Michael is a Health Care Educator in East Timor

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Teresa Michael is a Health Care Educator in East Timor

Teresa Michael is a Health Care Educator in East Timor

Teresa Michael is a Health Care Educator in East Timor

Peace Corps in East Timor

by Mary Michael

The moment she had been eagerly anticipating for over a year was finally here. The words on a single piece of paper held the ticket to shaping the rest of her life. In February of 2003, my twin sister, Teresa, received her invitation from the Federal Government to be one of eighteen volunteers in a group that would be the first Peace Corps team to serve in East Timor. My reaction to this news was pretty similar to that of the majority of our friends and family. “East who? What/where in the world is East Timor?” I couldn’t have even told you which region of the world that country lies or which countries it neighbors. This made me realize how I am incredibly unaware of, essentially, the world beyond my borders. With this invitation came a serious push to crack the shell of ignorance and to learn about the reality of a country so very far away from the United States; a country that is now home to my best friend.

After locating East Timor on the map (a small island north of Australia), the next question I had was, well, why do they need the Peace Corps there? Well, that’s one heck of a question with a very serious and tragic answer. I did some research on the internet and dug out some facts. Quite simply, here is a synopsis: Indonesian rule in East Timor began in 1975, with an East Timorese population of roughly 800,000. In August of 1999, East Timorese citizens voted for independence from Indonesia. This vote sparked a massive crusade of violence by the Indonesian military as well as strong anti-independence militias. Thousands were killed, and 500,000+ were displaced from their homes. Between 1975 and 1999, approximately 200,000 East Timorese died under Indonesian rule. The country was destroyed. On November 1, 1999, the last of the Indonesian Armed forces left East Timor, ending a 24 year presence. On May 20, 2002, East Timor became an independent nation. (For a complete chronology of events, please go to www.un.org/peace/etimor).

Reading about East Timor’s road to independence was certainly a somber history lesson for me. But it was the first instant message exchange I shared with my sister once she had spent a couple months in East Timor that gave me a tiny glimpse into the horrid, unthinkable nightmare that was reality for far too many people. Here is an excerpt from our exchange:

Her: It’s so different here, death is real. The staff tells us, in your communities, you will know people and they will die. They also told us that our host families will have their own stories about the revolution. The staff told us that in time, our host families will undoubtedly tell us their horror stories about '99, when the Indonesians decimated this country. Anyhow, my host father, launched into his story a few nights ago...he told me that he watched two of his friends get murdered while pleading for his life. He had a machete pointed at his stomach and a gun to his head. My jaw is pretty much on the ground at this point, as he described what East Timor looked like in 99. Bodies everywhere...in cars, the streets, the houses, blood everywhere. A 12 year old neighbor, a boy, was sitting listening also, and I asked him if he saw all this. "Everything" he replied. I can go on and on...but I won't. It's virtually impossible to walk away from that conversation without a shift in perspective.

Me: Did a lot of kids die during the revolution?
Her: Tons, it was so brutal, I can't even tell you stuff they did. They chopped peoples’ heads off and put them on sticks, on the highway so people driving could see what their fate was going to be if they voted for independence. This trip/experience is making me REMOTELY aware of what we have. Can you fathom 200,000 dead people? Can you?

I couldn’t believe what she was telling me. It sounded like something out of a horror movie. All I could think amidst our chat was how are people capable of doing this to each other? It made me sad on many different levels. My first concern was for the poor people that had to endure this kind of darkness. Another concern, equally as strong, stemmed from the fact that it made me realize how ungrateful I had been for the seemingly countless blessings in my life. My limitless freedoms and opportunities are afforded me, for the most part, simply due to my geographic location. I thought, wow, these people paid for their freedom with their blood, and tomorrow I am getting a pedicure. It just seemed so unfair. I felt so spoiled and disgusted with the triviality of my own concerns. Of course this forced me to ask, why? Why do things like this happen? But I realize that these questions are unanswerable, and that the lesson I must take out of this is to simply appreciate everything in my life, because no matter what, it could always be worse.

Teresa’s stated objective in East Timor is that of a Health Care Educator. East Timor has a very high infant mortality rate. It also has the highest number of mothers dying post child-birth in Southeast Asia. In addition, sixty-five percent of children are not vaccinated against common diseases. Teresa’s willingness to devote 2 years of her youth serving in the Peace Corps really blows me away, for a lack of better words. I had always seen those Peace Corps ads in the subway urging the individual to “redefine your world.” The Peace Corps is not only redefining her world, but mine as well, as I mentally step into East Timor every time I read her letters or think of her daily life. Along with exposure to a country I had never known about, Teresa’s dedication to service for others forces me to reconsider what it really means to “give back.” Although I am certainly not ready to go into the Peace Corps, I do feel very comfortable acting locally, and volunteering at home, now more than ever, out of the inevitable inspiration and spirit I feel flowing from my sister in East Timor.

Photo1: Volunteers holding local children.
Photo 2: A group of the volunteers in East Timor
Photo 3: The view from Teresa’s room!
Photo 4: Teresa with one of the local political leaders

When this story was posted in January 2005, this was on the front page of PCOL:

Peace Corps issues appeal to Thailand RPCVs Date: December 30 2004 No: 354 Peace Corps issues appeal to Thailand RPCVs
Peace Corps is currently assessing the situation in Thailand, anticipates a need for volunteers and is making an appeal to all Thailand RPCV's to consider serving again through the Crisis Corps. Also read this message and this message from RPCVs in Thailand. All PCVs serving in Thailand are safe. Latest: Sri Lanka RPCVs, click here for info.

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Story Source: 142

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