Children line up to receive food from the Jesuit mission center in Railaco, Timor Leste. (Photo: The Jesuit Mission)

Oct 9 2023

When Filipino Jesuit priest Martin Antonio Abad Santos arrived in Timor Leste two decades ago, the tiny Catholic-majority nation was grappling with endless problems including poverty, hunger, illiteracy and malnutrition.

That was shortly after Timor Leste gained independence following years of Indonesian occupation and deadly struggles for liberation.

“The word ‘courage’ had an entirely different meaning to me,” recalled Santos.

Santos is the grandson of decorated Filipino war hero Josè Abad Santos who was killed by the Japanese in 1942 during World War II.

Santos thought Timor Leste was his “war front” to empower the underprivileged.

Since his arrival in 2003, he has been mostly based in Railaco, a cluster of villages about 26 kilometers from the national capital Dili.

The Jesuit mission in Railaco has primarily focused on offering education and nutritional aid to hundreds of children from poor families. “We provide them with the care and attention that allows them to feel that they are not forgotten,” Santos said.

“Communities pushed to the margins of society often feel the pain of abandonment. They often feel disenfranchised and simply forgotten by everyone and everything,” Santos added.

He pointed out that the food program was intended to show the poor that they were precious.

Santos wanted the beneficiaries of the food program to know “that it is worth preparing food and visiting them, because they are sons and daughters of God, and the Lord does not forget them.”

Despite being rich in mineral resources such as gas, Timor-Leste is one of the poorest countries in the world.About 42 percent of its more than 1.3 million people live in poverty, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

About 8.6 percent of children under five suffered from acute malnutrition in 2020, according to the UN children’s agency, UNICEF.Around 7 percent were reported to suffer from moderate acute malnutrition and almost 1.5 percent were severely malnourished.

Santos pointed out that the single meal provided by his team of volunteers was never a solution to the acute poverty and malnutrition faced by the children.

“Although a single meal cannot eradicate malnutrition, it is a concrete reminder of the attention given to others. This is part of our mission of consolation and attention,” Santos said.

The mission station in Railaco provides various pastoral and social services including education for children, medical assistance through a mobile clinic, and food aid for needy families.

The center started in 2003, shortly after Santos and Father Samiel Dizon,  another Filipino Jesuit, arrived with the primary aim of providing medical care to people in the locality.

It was about one year after the United Nations recognized Timor Leste as an independent nation on May 20, 2002.

Indonesian occupation lasted from 1976 to 1999 and the fighting between the military and Timorese rebels left the country in ruins with rundown infrastructure and a lack of basic facilities.

To help people in the Railaco region, Santos began working with communities in remote mountain villages while Dizon undertook the task of constructing a parish church and a small school for local children.

The school served as a base for the missionaries to serve people in the region irrespective of their faith or ideological background.

Santos decided to stay after Dizon returned to the Philippines due to his advancing age and declining health.

In 2020, Santos was awarded the Sergio Vieira de Mello Award for “his silent but powerful efforts to improve the well-being of a significant part of the community.”

The award is named after a former UN high commissioner for human rights who was killed in the Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad, Iraq with 21 of his colleagues on Aug. 19, 2003.

Apart from helping to eradicate malnutrition and poverty, the Jesuit mission in East Timor also focuses on education.s established by another Jesuit missionary to educate young people.

Father Isaias Caldas started the institute in 2013 and developed the college into one of the best-known educational institutions in the country.

“Looking back at the early years, we can truly see the hand of God at work. God sent us friends to help us, we are grateful for the support of many benefactors,” Caldas said.

Caldas pointed out that around 30 percent of the college’s students are on a partial or full scholarship which he says is to “make sure it’s a school for everyone, rich or poor, to give everyone a chance.”

The current campus includes six buildings that house laboratories, faculty rooms, offices, the administrative wing, an indoor space that can accommodate around 1,000 people, and a chapel.

Caldas said that the goal of the institution is to help the children grow into good Christians “who do not live for themselves but for others, with the spirit of giving.”

“The goal is to make them see education as a gift, but also as a responsibility to help others, to help the country develop,” Caldas said.

“We hope that our school can produce the hope that our country needs. Our hope is our students: the hope is that they will be a shining presence in East Timorese society,” he added. – UCA News

This report has been summarized and edited from a feature published by the Vatican’s Fides news agency on Oct. 2, 2023.