A home away from home

Fr Peter O'Neill, the Columban Leader in Australia and the Columban Peace, Ecology and Justice Coordinator, recently visited Timorese workers at Our Lady Help of Christians Parish in East Warrnambool. Fr Peter spoke with some of the workers who have been warmly welcomed by the parish priest, Fr Lawrence O'Toole, and the local parishioners.

Fr Peter O'Neill with the Timorese workers, Warrnambool. Photo: Fr Peter O'Neill SSC

Fr Peter O'Neill with the Timorese workers, Warrnambool. Photo: Fr Peter O'Neill SSC

Natalino (Nato) Dosreis is a 29 year-old migrant worker from Maliana in Timor-Leste. Maliana is 150km southwest of Dili, the national capital. It has a population of 22,000 and is located a few kms from the border with Indonesia. Nato is the oldest of eight children. His father works on the family farm with two of Nato’s brothers earning a meagre living to support the family. They grow corn and kasava and have a few banana, mango and orange trees. His mother takes care of the family home.

Nato studied diligently to graduate from university with a degree in Education. After graduating in 2015, it was difficult to find full-time employment. The little money he received from teaching English part-time at the local high school was not enough to help support the education of his younger siblings.

Picking vegetables on Australian farms seemed a better option. Trying his luck, he applied to join the Australian Government’s Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) and was accepted. The SWP is part of Australia’s aid programme in the Pacific and is administered by the Department of Employment on behalf of the Federal Government.

Over a period of four years Nato worked as a seasonal worker, first in Geraldton, Western Australia, then in Bairnsdale, Victoria. Under the SWP he was able to enter Australia for a maximum of six months each year. The remainder of his time was spent in Timor-Leste trying to get a job here and there teaching English. 

Picking vegetables is a backbreaking job and Nato didn’t want to do it for the rest of his young adult life.

In July 2018 the Australian Government began the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS) for citizens from Timor-Leste and the Pacific to take up low and semi-skilled work opportunities in rural and regional Australia for up to three years. With his work experience in Australia and his fluency in English, Nato landed a job at a meat factory in East Warrnambool, three hours west of Melbourne.

When I heard that a group of 24 Timorese workers had arrived in East Warrnambool, I rang the local parish priest, Fr Lawrence O’Toole, who invited me to join the community for Mass on Sunday. After Communion, the Timorese workers stood proudly and with angelic voices sang a hymn in Portuguese. The second time I visited the community they sang a hymn in Tetum, the national language of Timor-Leste. On both occasions they received a spontaneous round of applause from the local parishioners.

After Mass, we gathered for a cuppa in the church foyer. There was a wonderful atmosphere of joy and friendship with lively conversations. The Timorese workers feel at home in their new faith community. Fr Lawrence is very willing to join in many photo opportunities with the Timorese workers who are just as excited to post them on their Facebook pages to show their family and friends at home. When I visited the community just before Christmas, the workers were excited about preparing a few Christmas carols to sing at the caroling in the church.

Nato shared with me that working in the meat factory is more difficult than picking vegetables. For eight hours a day, he uses a whizzer knife to cut the meat from the bones of cattle. With the chance to work in Australia full time for three years, the job gives him more security and a steady income to support his family. Nato has settled well into his new life in Warrnambool. He feels welcomed by the local Catholic community but finds it difficult to understand why there are very few young people attending Mass. He says the churches in Timor-Leste are packed with young people.

Natalino Dosreis (left with Fr Peter O'Neill (right). Photo: Fr Peter O'Neill SSC

Natalino Dosreis (left with Fr Peter O'Neill (right). Photo: Fr Peter O'Neill SSC Photo: Fr Peter O'Neill SSC

The PLS is part of Australia’s aid programme and is administered by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). As a member of the Australian Catholic Religious against Trafficking in Humans (ACRATH), I joined a team of ACRATH members to visit DFAT in Canberra to discuss our proposed pilot project to support PLS workers across Australia. Many ACRATH members belong to religious congregations who are working in Timor-Leste and the Pacific and that creates opportunities for us to contact workers before arriving in Australia and after they return home.

On my visits to Warrnambool I sat with the Timorese workers to answer any questions they had about the Pacific Labour Scheme and their work rights and to give them information on Australian laws. More recently I have kept them informed on the Australian Government’s new regulations on how to extend their visas during the coronavirus pandemic.

Pope Francis, in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel, says, “The parish is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a centre of constant missionary outreach.” Our Lady Help of Christians community in East Warrnambool is a living witness to a local Church with a missionary outreach. Recently, two new groups of Timorese workers have arrived in Warrnambool increasing the number there to over 50.

I look forward to visiting Warrnambool and meeting them again when it is safe to do so.

Fr Peter O'Neill is the Columban Leader in Australia and the Columban Peace, Ecology and Justice Coordinator..

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