Returning To Balibo

Returning To Balibo

Michele Rankin has had an ongoing relationship with Balibo Community Learning Centre, Timor Leste since her first Palms placement from 2016-2017.  She returned to Timor in 2019 and was repatriated in 2020 due to COVID-19 but continued to support Balibo CLC remotely throughout.  Michele has now returned to continue to help build capacity of the Program Coordinator and management team to design, manage and evaluate development, training and health activities in partnership with the Balibo community. Her daughter Anjelica has returned with her and writes of her journey below.

It’s hard to say who was more eager for Mum’s return to Balibo – herself or the local community. The staff at the Balibo 5 Community Learning Centre (CLC) have missed her and she, of course, has missed them right back.

It’s been two years of waiting. Mum and my sister, Gabby, were repatriated to Australia in 2020 and both desperately wanted to return to Timor. Unfortunately, Gabby’s study prevents her from returning and completing the last few months of her placement. My love of Balibo and seeing what my sister and mum achieved inspired me to become a Palms program participant. I will continue to deliver the English classes and mentor two local people in attaining their certificate to teach English. I will also be assisting the Balibo Tourism Working Group to reboot tourism in the area, which is a much relied-on income source.

Mum is glowing with joy by the time we reach Balibo. I am riddled with nerves, wondering if I can make a difference. Not only is this a new experience for me but I am walking in my identical twin sister’s footsteps. It must be strange for the staff and community.

We are greeted with a sign on the door of our little house – welcome back Mom and Jell. It is unbearably heart-warming and a reminder of how lucky we are to begin this journey, both with each other and with people we already know.

After some much-needed sleep, and a chance to unpack, we hit the ground running. We have a visiting Australian dentist, two years’ worth of donations to sort, and so many projects and programs to kick start that makes it hard to know where to begin. It also made us realise how much the world health pandemic impacted Balibo.

Without a car to access remote areas and transport supplies, the Days for Girls program, which provides menstrual kits and educates young girls about women’s health, and the oral health education and prevention program came to a halt. Thanks to the generous donation of a Toyota Hilux, better known as The Silver Beast, we are able to recommence work. With mum at the wheel, we have been traveling to remote communities to continue these programs, in addition to delivering mother and baby packs, hospital supplies, school supplies, and wheelchairs.

Rofina and Sidonia, who are part of the Balibo Women’s Centre Leadership team, have been building a stronger relationship with Pradet. This organisation provides services for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, and human trafficking. Sadly, cases have increased over the last two years. Thanks to Rotary International we have been able to kit out safe houses and provide children and women with clothing and school supplies. In addition, discussions are underway to implement activities that empower women for the future, such as conversational English classes, sewing classes, and computer training.

Rofina (Balibo Women’s Centre Coordinator – 3rd from the left) with Pradet staff: Sidalia (Admin & Finance), Acha (Director of Pradet) & Estefania (Counsellor)

At times our work is overwhelming. I recall on one sweltering hot day, Mum, Rofina, Sidonia, and I ventured off in The Silver Beast to deliver a Days for Girls session at one school, the oral health program at another, and to drop off medical supplies at the local health outpost. While we waited for students to return from their lunch breaks, we picked up ice-creams from a local shop and drove to the beachside. It was a much-needed moment of reflection and peace, looking into the lapping ocean while being surrounded by three strong women.

It’s in these moments of quiet where Mum and I find our motivation, strength, and drive. It is women like Sidonia and Rofina, who go home to more hard work at the end of a long day, who inspire us to be strong and resilient. We keep the sign on our door – welcome back Mom and Jell – because it reminds us of why we are here.

Feature image: Anjelica, Rofina and English class students