Subject: Age: In East Timor, Teacher Finds A New Frontline

The Age (Melbourne, Australia)

Monday September 3, 2007

Teacher finds a new frontline

By Elisabeth Tarica

Elisabeth Tarica meets a Timorese man who has gone from being a freedom fighter to an educator.

AT THE East Timorese high school where Simoa da Silva Barreto teaches, textbooks are scarce, the library is an empty shell and, until recently, the 1400 students and handful of teachers sat on the floor.

"None of the students have anything they can take away and study so progress is not as fast as it should be," Mr Barreto says. "Every school in East Timor experiences the same thing. It's a very different experience (to Australia) because we teach without any good facilitation."

Mr Barreto, a former activist with the Student Solidarity Movement that supported the armed resistance in the lead-up to the 1999 independence referendum, shared his experiences with year 11 and 12 history and politics students at Elwood College.

Before independence, he was part of the clandestine group who risked their lives to inform the East Timorese about the atrocities committed by the Indonesian military.

His town of Suai, which was almost destroyed after the 1999 independence referendum and its ensuing violence, has been rebuilt with help from Friends of Suai, a group established in 2000 in the City of Port Phillip to help rebuild the coastal town. It has also played an integral part in helping Timorese children to get an education.

It recently donated six computers to the community centre, organised for local carpenters to build 300 chairs for students and set up educational scholarships.

At the Suai Public High School, teachers often lack sufficient training, there are 60 students to a class and the school doesn't have any computers, laboratories or offices.

The six computers donated to the nearby Suai Community Centre are not connected to the internet because the landline was dug up for scrap metal.

Mr Barreto says the problems facing educators are complicated by a language crisis. Primary lessons are taught in Portuguese but most people do not speak the language because it was only officially introduced into schools in 2000. Most primary and secondary teachers are East Timorese and the majority were trained in the Indonesian system.

Secondary schools still use Indonesian curricula while a new Portuguese curriculum has been developed for primary schools.

With 50 per cent of the adult population unable to read or write and about 25 per cent of children not at school, the overall situation seems grim, but Mr Barreto says there is a strong thirst for knowledge.

"They just wait to get more knowledge, they want the teacher to write and write," he says.

Long walks along dirt tracks through the bush to get to the nearest primary school do not deter the young students in remote villages.

"In one small village they have to wait until they are 12 or 13 to start primary school," he says.

"One area is far away from the school, more than 10 kilometres. They can't go to school if they are six, seven or eight they have to wait until 12 because they need to wait until they can go alone."

Many other children can't attend because their parents rely on them to work on the land while young girls often remain at home to help their families.

Mr Barreto, a community leader and English teacher, was in Australia on a two-week visit organised by the Friends of Suai.

Mr Barreto, whose visit was a chance to build links between local students and those in Suai, joined Elwood College's contingent at a constitutional convention on foreign policy issues at Caulfield Grammar.

Dr Manny Kingsley, Elwood's history and politics teacher, says Mr Barreto's visit provided important practical experience. "When you teach history you talk about people you never see," he says.

"Here you have someone who has chosen not to become a big-name political activist but to go out to teach people how to improve society materially, socially and culturally. It is a unique opportunity because you can make education alive."

As a result, Elwood students are more sensitive to the country's turbulent political history.

"Talking about democracy to a young Australian is a bit theoretical until you can actually bring experience," he says.

"Our primary task is to underpin the values of democracy to bring it to kids' attention, to make sure they understand what democracy means not just as a theoretical thing but how people value it, how they are fighting to keep it and to make sure that history is seen as something real."

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Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia) Monday September 3, 2007 Monday

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