AUSTRALIAN military veterans who served in East Timor have set up a scholarship program offering vocational training for unemployed Timorese youth.
Described as a “debt of honour”, because of a close wartime bond between Australia and East Timor, the scholarship is the initiative of the Veteran’s Care Association, which provides holistic care of body, mind and soul for Australia veterans, many who served in East Timor, and their families.
“It’s a scholarship set up to support descendants of Timorese veterans training to get real skills that help them be job ready,” VCA’s special projects officer and a former army major, Michael Stone said.
“I wanted to capitalise on the good will that has been created by the Timor Awakening program and the feeling of happiness and healing and a desire for reciprocity that our veterans are getting, and want to give back to Timor.”
With spirituality at its core, VCA, founded by Catholic Deacon Gary Stone, provides a 12-month rehabilitation program, called Timor Awakening, that includes an 11-day visit to East Timor and takes aim at a “health crisis” among young Australian veterans who suffer from a frightening suicide rate.
More than 100 veteran participants in the TA program have dug deep and donated $16,000 to provide about 30 vocational training scholarships.
“There is massive unemployment rate in Timor and through vocational training this is a way we can give back to the next generation,” Mr Stone said.
“We hope to provide practical skills that can be used to get jobs.”
In a country with a weak economy and high youth unemployment, a Timor Leste government strategic plan advises that tourism (including hospitality) offers one of the main paths forward.
Even university graduates have little chance of finding employment in their fields of expertise.
Mr Stone said there was already strong competition to earn one of the training scholarships, which aimed to develop general hospitality, tour guide or chef skills.
The students are drawn from families whose members served in the resistance forces during 24 years of fighting for independence against Indonesia.
The three-month courses are held at a training centre – the East Timor Development Agency – established by Second World War Australian veterans who served in Timor.
“Two of the Sparrow Force commandos from 1942 – Colin Doig, Tom Nisbett, both platoon commanders –left part of their estate to set up a war orphans scholarship fund,” Mr Stone said.
“After independence, at least 200 orphans were put through primary and high school.
“I thought it was the apt place – through ETDA – for us to contribute as well. The students will get a good cross-section of skills.”
The first intake of students have started training and selection is underway for future courses.”