Ba Futuru, Timor Leste
Tuesday, 12 April, 2011
Sierra James was a student at Columbia University in 2004 when she decided to look for conflict.
“I wanted something in the middle, not Afghanistan or Iraq. I didn’t want a crazy place but I did want to study how people recovered from conflict,” Sierra said.
Sierra chose Timor Leste and moved to Dili to begin a master’s degree. Initially planning to stay three months, she ended up staying for seven, went back to the US and returned to become one of the founders of a remarkable organisation.
Ba Futuru means “For the Future” in Tetun. From the backyard of a house Sierra shared with friends, Ba Futuru has grown into an organisation with 25 permanent employees and 30 part-time staff and volunteers from countries including Australia, the USA, England, Sweden, Nepal, Austria and Singapore.
“I was an artist and did some painting in our backyard. Two young boys turned up and asked if they could do some painting.”
Within a few weeks the numbers had grown to eventually contain teenagers and children from three to 17 years. Sierra realised she was contributing something to children and youth, many of who were at risk and suffering from the effects of the past conflict within the country.
Some of the school age children were suffering from what Sierra called “Cinderella syndrome.”
They had been sent to Dili to stay with their extended family and in many cases were forced to do all the household work and were exploited in other ways.
Though it had been founded in 2004 Ba Futuru struggled to raise funds.
The internal upraising in 2006 saw more than 150,000 people flee their homes to escape violence.
Camps were set up throughout Dili and in other cities to handle what were in reality refugees in their own country, but called by the United Nations and others organisation Internally Displaced Persons.
The shooting finally ceased to be replaced by youth gangs who roamed streets of Dili burning houses, looting and fighting with each other.
Suddenly everybody wanted to know ways of helping 150,000 people who clearly were victims of conflict.
Money started to flow to Ba Futuru and the organisation worked with others in the IDP camps and eventually throughout the country.
Ba Futuru began work building a culture of peace and non-violence by providing people with skills and knowledge necessary to create a positive future.
The rapid expansion of the organisation presented a need for increased financial control, general administration and systems improvement.
“We appealed to Australian Business Volunteers for help and ABV volunteers have played a major role in our successful development.
“Tony Carr from Victoria came in 2009 and guided us on basic financial management.
“Then last year we had Fran Healy from Tasmania who set up programs on development, governance and administration and Ron and Judy Taylor from Phegans Bay in NSW who further developed Tony’s initial finance work.
“These volunteers have also assisted in organisational governance, building capacity on grant writing and staff management.
“We are now at the stage where our financial control is at the highest level and annually audited which has helped us to get longer term grants to provide essential programs for vulnerable populations.”
Ba Futuru has now provided opportunities to 20,000 conflict affected young people to develop their skills through artistic workshops on conflict resolution, human rights and civic education.
The organisation has provided training in child protection, children’s rights and non violent discipline to more than 1,000 parents, teachers, orphanage staff and community leaders.
Other non government organisations and several departments from the Timor Leste Government itself also call upon Ba Futuru to conduct workshops for their staff.
The emphasis is now on training youth and community leaders throughout the country.
“Once you learn about conflict resolution you can work out how to do this in your personal and community life.
“Unless the cycle of violence can be changed it is going to be difficult to move on, “Sierra said. The attempted assassination of President Jose Ramos Horta in 2008 lead to martial law being enforced with curfews and restrictions.
“As a peace advocate it is hard for me to admit, but this period of martial law brought a sense of law and order to Dili,” Sierra said.
Ba Futuru is working to ensure that this sense continues throughout the country so that in time those suffering from trauma as a result of the many conflicts in the country can hopefully return to normal life.
Words by Gary Evans