Subject: UCAN: Deacon Offers Youths Vocational Skills As Alternative To Street Crime

ET04974.1497 May 15, 2008 61 EM-lines (698 words)

EAST TIMOR Deacon Offers Youths Vocational Skills As Alternative To Street Crime

BAUCAU, East Timor (UCAN) -- The future seemed bleak for Angelo Alves until the university dropout and hoodlum, by his own admission, tried to extort money from Joao Sarmento.

"I am most grateful that I now have the opportunity to learn and see my future," Alves told UCA News recently. The 24-year-old youth said he can now dream of finding a job to help his six brothers and sisters, thanks to his would-be victim.

After Alves dropped out of university because he could not afford the tuition, he joined a street gang in Baucau, 120 kilometers east of Dili. From then he spent most of his time on the streets with his friends. He said they would fight other gangs, drink alcohol and extort money from people who walked or rode by.

One day Alves' gang stopped Sarmento, a deacon in his final stage of preparation for priesthood, on the road to try and get money from him. Instead the seminarian, more or less the same age as the gang members, talked with them. He continued to talk with them, on other occasions, and they accepted him as a friend. Eventually he convinced Alves and the others to join informal computer classes he runs.

Since January, Sarmento has taught young people to use computers as part of the Genius Program run by Baucau diocese's youth department, which also offers courses on other vocational skills as well as music and art.

The program focuses on youths from broken homes and school dropouts, many of whom end up as street hoodlums, explained 29-year-old Sarmento, who expects to be ordained a priest for Baucau diocese next year. "At the beginning it was so hard to approach them, but with patience I now have more than 100 problem youths here with me," he told UCA News.

He teaches them to use word-processing and other basic programs in a small room that can just fit five computers. A rotational schedule allows the 100 students, in groups of five, to use the computers for two hours at a time, three days a week for each group.

Besides practical skills the youths could use to earn a living, the diocesan program teaches spiritual, social, and moral "skills" so the young people are "fully prepared to turn to a clean life," Sarmento said.

From what participants say, the effort is paying off.

"I did not ever think of my future, and my family's future. Now, I have got to do something to uplift my life," said 21-year-old Andre Gomez, as he placed his fingers on the computer keyboard. "We can't just sit and lament over our condition. It is time now to stand up and do something fruitful for ourselves and our country," he told UCA News.

Gomez completed high school in 2003 but was unable to study further because, like Alves, his parents could not afford the tuition fees. He ended up spending several years on the streets, getting drunk every day and attacking members of other gangs, he recounted.

Now, brought together by Sarmento, he and Alves, who used to belong to rival gangs, are friends.

"Deacon Sarmento is as perfect a person as one can find," Alves said, adding that the person he tried to victimize is now helping him become a "real person."

Unemployment in East Timor hovers at around 50 percent and more than 40 percent of its 1 million people live in poverty. Aid agencies warn that food shortages threaten a fifth of the population.

Street gangs are blamed for much of the violence that flared up in April 2006 and paralyzed the country for months. Gangs of youths armed with swords and stones roved the streets, burned houses, and looted property. The violence then claimed more than 20 lives and displaced more than 100,000 people, mostly in the Dili area.

The situation calmed before the general election in June 2007, but violence erupted again two months later, this time around Baucau. Up to 6,000 people fled into the jungle after gangs went on the rampage, burning at least 600 homes and setting up roadblocks. Church and government properties were burned, and nine girls at a convent school were raped.

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