Young Timorese dream of riches in Europe, Sister Alma says

To the Salesian nun, what counts in the poverty-stricken country is educating youth and children how to live and feed themselves.

Dili (AsiaNews) – Sister Alma Castagna is a Salesian nun and missioner in East Timor. A medical school graduate who was awarded one of Italy's highest civilian honours for her volunteer work, she spoke to AsiaNews about the problems the Timorese face today. And in her view, overpopulation is not one of them. "Census data fall short of what was predicted. Someone had forecast a population of a million people but there are fewer residents than that. What is more we do not know if the data counts both Timorese nationals and immigrants."

In what conditions do people live two years after independence?

Despite some grumbling in public institutions things remain relatively calm. We are waiting for the report on the country's overall performance, especially its economic performance. Poverty has been growing lately and the gap between haves –those with a government job or working for international agencies– and have-nots –largely subsistence farmers– has been widening.

Do people really live in wretched conditions?

Not really! Things are not as bad as in Jakarta's suburbs. But more and more people are moving to the capital Dili where they are creating enclaves with high levels of poverty.

Are there specific groups who migrate?

Young people are more likely to leave the countryside for an easier life not only in Dili but abroad as well. Recently there have been cases of young people giving up study grants in favour of work abroad. Europe has become a mythical place to many of them who leave in search of easy money. Whilst such dreams appear alluring, the reality has been quite different. Some migrants have died of hunger or alcohol-related accidents.

What is the average monthly salary?

It's around US$ 110-120. A nurse for example can make US$ 125. Hence, anyone making US$ 1,000 can consider himself "rich".

Are children really in danger of being underfed?

The problem is not so much underfeeding but malnutrition. Recently we did a study for the government and the results were clear. More than 50 per cent of all children are malnourished whilst another 10 per cent are chronically underfed. This is because their diet is essentially rice-based and lacks other basic nutrients like proteins. The problem is compounded by the fact that parents are often uneducated about child nutrition. Vegetables that could provide what is missing from the typical diet are available but are not given to children. For this reason we must educate parents about what is good nutrition. On top of that the East Timorese family is still very much in the hierarchical mode with the father eating first and the mother lasts.

Does the family still have a primary importance?

Television and newspapers are overwhelming people with messages that embody values from Europe. The family which was once a fundamental social institution is being progressively weakened. Separations are rising as is the practice of taking a second wife. Young people marry after having children out of wedlock and adultery is more commonplace.

How do you work in such a difficult context?

Ours is a daily challenge. We try to pass on value and beliefs that are losing ground. Young people are especially in trouble. We have set up schools offering job training such as sewing and computer literacy to increase trainees' employability. We are also heavily involved in orphan care helping not only the many children who lost their parents during the guerrilla war but also those who are now losing parents as a result of illness and disease.

Can assistance from the UN's World Food Programme help the population of East Timor?

Of course! Dispensaries are bare and outside help is more than welcome. But we must keep in mind that what is really important is getting parents to better understand what their children need to grow up healthy . . . Outside help can then be the icing on the cake.

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