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Cate Johnson

Group of students sitting on a cliff in a mountain forest of Timor-Leste

My students and I spent five memorable weeks in the small island nation of Timor-Leste in the summer of 2016. We believe that we were the first group of American university students to complete a credit-bearing study abroad program in this new country. There was so much to see and learn – we studied the history and culture of the Timorese people, traveled the island to witness its natural beauty, and learned about and critiqued the many development projects employed to fight Timor’s crippling poverty.

Each day gave us incredible stories that we’ll all carry with us forever, but two days in particular stand out. For about three weeks we stayed at an orphanage that was re-built after being destroyed in the 1999 war with Indonesia (which was occupying Timor-Leste at that time). One morning, the young residents took us on a walk to gather firewood at the old (pre-war) site of the orphanage. For them, this is just a set of hallowed-out old buildings that they now play in. We watched them climb all over the old structures and giggle as they threw seeds and berries at us and each other, all while pretending to be monkeys. We cheerfully walked back to the orphanage helping them carry the loads of firewood.

Students and Timor-Leste children carrying firewood

Later when we returned and were able to talk to the staff and older residents who remember the war, we heard the stories of the militia burning all the surrounding villages and the orphanage. They then organized a large team of kids and teens to bring us up to the secret mountain hideout where hundreds of villagers and the entire orphanage hid for weeks as they waited out the war. 

We took off after lunch with snacks, drinks, and an entourage of about 30 (mostly barefoot) kids. Since this is not a mountain that people often climb, we trail-blazed for most of the 2-hour-long hike, navigating steep switchbacks, stopping frequently to admire hand-sized spiders and other unfamiliar creatures. Once we arrived, we had a breath-taking view of the gorgeous mountainous landscape below. We were high enough to see the ocean and the Indonesian border. The kids and teens then ran around showing us where the people slept, where the food was buried, and where they played music in the evening to keep up morale. Most of the children with us were not born yet or too little to remember the war, but the entire orphanage takes a yearly pilgrimage to this site so the little ones learn the stories too. They also know their parents and older family members were kept safe on that mountain. We remained on the mountain ridge for a couple of hours and left only when we were worried about losing light. Sitting in silence (which was hard to achieve with 30 kids) while reflecting on what happened there 17 years before was one of the most memorable and impactful moments for my students and me.