Returning Home

Returning Home

By Michele & Gabby Rankin

In 2016 & 2017 Palms volunteer Michele Rankin worked at the Balibo 5 Community Learning Centre (CLC) as an Organisational Development Mentor. CLC was established by the Balibo House Trust in memory of the 5 Australian based journalists that were murdered in Balibo in 1975. The Centre is operated by a local community board. In 2019, Michele decided to return to Balibo with her daughter Gabby who is volunteering as English Teacher and Mentor. Due to Covid 19, Gabby and Michele made the difficult decision to return back to Australia. The following interviews are a brief glimpse of the emotional challenges and the moral dilemma of returning home.  

PART ONE: An interview with Gabby Rankin, my daughter and recently evacuated Palms Volunteer.


The thing I regret most is not being able to continue volunteering at the Centre. From helping to distribue medical supplies, school supplies, wheelchairs, establishing the Women’s Advocacy Hub and the dental clinic, the CLC team was working hard to help the community.

Specifically, I regret not being able to continue teaching English Classes and mentoring Rofina. She was making great strides in teaching and directing classes.

The English Program was also expanding- from contextual Tour Guide English, to English Training for the Women’s Centre, more advanced classes for the CLC staff, a basic hospitality course, and teaching classes in Balibo and Belola- it’s all on pause. it’s frustrating that the momentum has stopped.

Most of all I regret leaving everyone behind- including my pets.  I worry about them all.


I miss the routine we had created. Waking up everyday, saying good morning to Mario, starting breakfast as 3 people and ending as 5 or 6. Seeing all the CLC people through out the day. Running around to get things done. The people at the Centre are like my family. We are a team, all working towards the same goal of benefiting the Balibo Community. I miss the sense of friendship, family, and motivation. I miss my cat Bo with all my heart. I miss visiting Dianne and Sidonia in Maliana.

I also miss teaching classes, and working with Rofina to develop our program. Teaching the kids is so much fun, and all the work is so meaningful and positive. I have left behind a lot of plans. This is the time of the placement where we start seeing a lot of good results.


The most difficult thing is leaving everyone behind and not knowing if they will be okay. I feel like they helped me through difficult times, and now that they are facing difficult times, we have left them. It’s like I have a debt to them I cannot repay.

I feel so much guilt. We have so many conveniences and opportunities here. Like, even in self isolation, we have good internet, food, Netflix, hot water. It’s hard to deal with that sense of abandonment. Its difficult not knowing when we can go back. You can’t plan too far ahead when you don’t know what will happen.  


Mostly, I have left behind people I truly care about.

It feels like I’ve left behind a lot of sisters and brothers. I’ve left behind work I truly care about. I put in a lot of effort into developing and creating an English Program that will eventually be self sustainable for Rofina. The Balibo Trails Tour guides who still need a lot of support and mentoring.  I’ve left behind animals I really care about. Like my cat, my dog, my rooster, my chicken. Its a whole life we have created for ourselves and I’ve just left it behind. I feel like I’ve left behind half of myself.


Although it was not ideal to return, it gives me time to prepare and catch up with work I haven’t had a chance to complete. It gives me an opportunity to set up some of the ground work now have reliable power, easy internet access and an abundance of resources. We are still working with the CLC team though WhatsApp. The remote placement has become remote in a different way now.


Of course, I have too much work to do. I don’t think I can afford not to return. I just started a new round of English classes, so I will need to return to continue mentoring Rofina.  I’m in the process of developing a vocational English course in conjunction with the Women’s Advocacy Hub. I need to continue the contextual English skills training with the tour guides. I also have English Training for the hospitality team and more advance training for the CLC staff to help them with their report writing. And beyond the English Program, there is so much more work to do.

PART TWO: An interview with Michele Rankin, my mother and recently evacuated Palms Volunteer. 


I regret leaving my Balibo family behind.  I am quite guttered about it all, even though we implemented certain measures to protect and prepare our Balibo family and friends. I feel guilty. I feel like I’ve deserted them, although logically I know it was the best thing to do.  My husband, daughter and other family members were very worried about us. There were many factors to consider. Being in a remote location, close to the Indonesian border, the lack of testing and infection control facilities, my health risk, and the potential of civil unrest were all carefully considered. The Maliana Hospital services over 100,000 people. There are a lack of beds, a lack of supplies and equipment, and only 1 ventilator which is not working properly. I had to considered others feeling responsible for our health and safety and being a drain on local resources.

Last dinner together


I’m missing the life that we created for ourselves in Balibo. The routine of getting up, going down to the Merkado to buy bread, coming back for breakfast, and  making more breakfast as more people came into work. I miss the camaraderie of the people I work with. I miss all the Bondia’s and Botarde’s each day. I miss my seeing Balibo babies. I miss the Centre as it is a hub of activity. There’s always something on the go. We work with some fantastic people and bouncing ideas off each other to create or improve new programs and initiatives. It’s just constant.

I miss mentoring and working with Rofina, Ella, Sidonia, Felix, Marino, Mario, the tour guides, the Balibo Fort Manager and other community people.  I miss working and collaborating with people on how to capitalise on potential opportunities. I miss our activities and seeing the benefits to the community at a grassroots level. I miss all our pets. I miss the life there. It doesn’t have all the materialism. It’s not an easy life by no means but its more meaningful and fulfilling way of living.


For me the most difficult thing is coping with the guilt. I didn’t get an opportunity to say goodbye to everyone. We left at 3.00am in the morning after a long day and late night of trying to implement some precautionary measures to make sure our Balibo family was safe.

The reverse cultural shock is really hard, especially as I am returning when Australia is in the middle of a crises. The different values and having the constant barrage of negativity through the media has been hard to cope with. We have come back to a country that has so much and people are still complaining. I know I have left people behind that will have a short supply of food and medical supplies. To see that people are fighting over non essential supplies really breaks my heart. People complain here about not having enough toilet paper but I know that the Maliana hospital doesn’t even have enough medical necessities like masks, gloves, ventilators and disinfectant. We are being told to wash our hands constantly but what if you don’t have access to a lot of water or soap?

Even though we left suddenly we still managed to drop off masks and gloves to Maliana Hospital. Just knowing that we were able to do this through the generosity of the Balibo House Trust, Rotary International and Veterans Care Association is helping me to reconcile with the apparent difference of values between both countries. Self isolation is a bonus in helping me to readjust from Timor to Australian culture. I am also extremely lucky to have a wonderful and supportive husband (my rock) and family.


I’ve left behind a lot unfinished plans and putting all our programs on hold has also been hard. Having plans and developing programs that make a real difference is great, but mentoring and teaching people towards self sufficiency takes time. It is frustrating and sad that all these great programs we had up and running are all on hold. It is the same with the mentoring process, which was at such a critical stage. And they are really important programs like the Dental Clinic and Schools Education and Prevention Program, the Women’s Advocacy Hub, Days for Girls Health Education and Kit Distribution, Women’s cooperatives like the Sewing Group, Cafeteria and Tais Shop, training for the tour guides, medical and school supply distributions, the wheelchair program, other social welfare initiatives, and the English program.

Balibo has a way of sneaking into your heart and taking over. Having been there before, I always call Balibo my second home. I have all my Balibo kids. I feel like I’ve left behind half of my life and heart. I find the work that I do in Balibo to be very enriching. I can see a real difference being made. I love seeing my kids at the Centre develop and take charge. I’m like a proud Mumma. 

The CLC gals


I’m still working on a lot of projects. Through technology, I am able to work remotely (with a remote community). We are still in daily contact with everyone, and through this we are still able to reassure them that we haven’t deserted them. We are working with some of the tour guides on their website and I’m developing the marketing strategy with them.

I am also working with Ella on a business model for the sewing group. I am working with Rofina, Ella and Sidonia on the strategy for the Women’s Advocacy Hub. I am working with Felix and Sidonia on the annual dental report which is important for our funding. I am also mentoring and setting up administration training processes for the tour guides. There are the 2020 Learning and development plans to finish. I am still working with the hospitals and health outposts through the wheelchair and medical supply program reviewing the lists. So I am using this opportunity to catch my breath and work on some planning as we are usually too busy.

DO YOU INTEND ON RETURNING TO TIMOR? WHY?Definitely. There are so many programs in the infancy stage. If we are going to work towards self sustainability, there’s a lot of mentoring needed to instill confidence and get people skilled to the level where they can be self sustainable.

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