Subject: Teenagers' eyes open to a dot on a map

Monday, May 23, 2005

Teenagers' eyes open to a dot on a map


When Jay Blackinton, hip and 17, packed his bags for the trip of a lifetime, the most exotic travel he had done was "in Canadian waters."

Sixteen-year-old Saige Esmaili had seen Europe, but she had never set eyes on an impoverished place where hundreds of thousands of people perished in recent bloodshed.

Maren Wenzel, 17, told the parents of friends where she was going with Saige and Jay. They looked at her wide-eyed. "Is that in Africa?" they asked.

East Timor, a small island nation north of Australia, is in Southeast Asia. It is 7,700 miles from Seattle's Nova High School, where the three teens and their classmates studied the dot on the map. Their young minds opened to absorb the painful story of the tiny country. Their hearts soon followed.

The David versus Goliath plight of East Timor, one of the planet's newest democracies, captivated the students. It also sent them on an unexpected journey.

Whatever pessimists might think about the state of students in public schools -- that young people are more concerned about Xbox or X Games than anything else -- the deeds of the Nova students offer exceeding hope.

The students learned how the Portuguese colonized East Timor in the mid-16th century.

Japan occupied the country during World War II.

After Japan's defeat, the country went back to Portuguese control.

East Timor declared independence from Portugal in 1976, but nine days after doing so marauding Indonesian forces invaded, occupied and annexed the land, triggering decades of fighting that claimed a quarter million lives by many estimates.

After years of strife, Indonesia agreed in 1999 to a referendum that paved the way for the East Timorese to vote in favor of or against integration with Indonesia. In the face of massive voter intimidation and violence, most of the East Timorese voters turned out. More than 80 percent of them voted against integration.

The Indonesian soldiers left, but not politely. On their way out they destroyed the country's infrastructure, including seven out of every 10 buildings.

East Timor gained independence on May 20, 2002.

A couple of troubling revelations stuck with the Nova kids. They learned how the U.S. government had given a thumbs-up to the illegal Indonesian invasion of East Timor, going so far as to provide arms used against civilians. Uncle Sam later shrugged at efforts to hold Indonesia accountable for its behavior.

If America had a hand in harming East Timor, the Nova teens wondered, shouldn't Americans now help the democracy, which faces massive humanitarian needs?

Nova senior Ashley Barnard hatched an idea to start a sister-school link between Nova and an East Timor school.

With moxie, she contacted the first lady of East Timor, who told her about Kay Rala, a school near the small city of Manatuto. Ashley and her Nova classmates soon were exchanging letters and gifts with Kay Rala students, and raising money for school needs -- about $3 per month per East Timor student. Working with groups such as the Seattle East Timor Relief Association, the Nova students also collected money to support a community health clinic.

The students and their teacher, Joe Szwaja, became so touched they wanted to make their involvement more personal.

Last month, Szwaja, who is known as a Green Party activist, and 10 Nova students hopped on a plane for East Timor. They visited the school, taught some English to the children and learned a little Tetun, a national language. They heard tales from the people, forged deep bonds and grieved when Tomas, one of the boys they had befriended, died of dengue fever during their visit.

They were transformed by it all.

"It gave me so much perspective on how much we take for granted in the U.S.," says Lucas Powers, clad in retro black Converse pumps. "People there live in houses made of old tin roofing from houses destroyed by the Indonesian military."

Maren -- the young woman whose friends thought she was headed to Africa -- said it was weird coming home from the two-week trip. "I met up with friends at Westlake Center," she says. "I watched people go shopping, the SUVs going by. No one was smiling. In East Timor, the people were smiling. Even though everyone we met had experienced something horrible, they were just so happy to have what they did, so appreciative. ... It leaves you speechless."

Ramona Freeborn, 17, was riveted by experiencing a fledgling democracy up close. She was amazed by how involved and impassioned the people were about politics -- especially compared with the apathy she sees in America. "The people felt they had a direct impact on where their country was going," Ramona says. "People felt like they made a difference."

"The country has a bright future," student Ann Hashimoto tells me with guarded optimism. "They just need help."

"I want to go on helping them," vows Nevin Wade, an intellectually agile 11th-grader. "It makes me want to encourage others to get involved in the Third World. It's more than just donating money. Go there."

If we in the First World experience the Third World, perhaps the whole world can be better.

The young people of Nova have come home with an out-of-textbook lesson for us all:

People-to-people diplomacy works.

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