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COVID-19 forces mother and daughter to end Timor volunteering and pray for people of Balibo

Timorese friends: Gabby (left) and Michele Rankin (right) with friends Rofina, Sidonia and Ella at a women’s advocacy centre in Balibo, East Timor. Photo: Palms Australia

COVID-19 has torn Michele Rankin and her daughter Gabby away from their friends in East Timor but the plight of the people there calls them still.

The Brisbane Catholics had been volunteering in Balibo, East Timor, for the past year with Palms Australia, an aid and development agency with Catholic origins.

Michele, who had another year to go on her placement, and Gabby, hoping to stay at least until October, were forced to cut short their stay when coronavirus struck.

“When we left there had been one confirmed case but subsequently there’s been another 16 cases and they have come through students – Timorese studying in Indonesia coming through the border, which is about 15km from Balibo,” Mrs Rankin said.

“There’s not a lot of testing being done (for COVID-19) …

“There would be a lot of (COVID-positive) people undiagnosed, because the testing’s in Dili and that’s a three to four-hour drive (away).”

It was Mrs Rankin’s second stint for Palms Australia in East Timor, having worked there in 2016-17 at the Balibo 5 Community Learning Centre as an organisational development mentor in the young nation.

The centre was established by the Balibo House Trust in memory of the five Australian journalists murdered in Balibo in 1975.

Mrs Rankin said Gabby had “fallen in love with Balibo” when she visited her during her previous placement.

Miss Rankin said “the people there are just beautiful”.

She had joined her mother in Balibo this time as a volunteer English teacher and mentor, and they had both grown close to the people.

Miss Rankin she worries about the people they’ve left behind “because I know that they don’t have adequate health systems to combat if COVID gets really bad”.

“I just don’t know what will happen,” she said.

Mrs Rankin said, with Palms Australia, she had been trying for the past three years to get medical supplies into the region.

“I don’t think unless you take a trip there that you can even imagine … They don’t even have proper stethoscopes there, let alone personal protective equipment (for hospital staff dealing with COVID-19 patients),” she said.

“So we’ve been working with Rotary International and with, just recently, the (Brisbane-based) Veterans’ Care Association, trying to get supplies … and then I was contacted by the hospital director in Maliana (near Balibo) to see if we could get some COVID-based equipment and supplies as well.

“(The day before) our departure (for home), we made an emergency rush into Maliana hospital because we had some … masks in the dental clinic so the Balibo House Trust donated about 1000 masks, and just in the last four days have donated masks to the Balibo clinic as well as the immigration officers and the police that patrol the borders there, because they have nothing.

“We complain about (having enough) hand sanitiser here but those on the frontlines (in East Timor) have basically nothing.

“On top of what we’re already getting for them … we’re talking about (needing) beds … You’ve got people who are lying on the floors there.

“We’re trying to get more beds at the moment; we’re trying to get masks; we’re trying to get gloves; some clothing; some stethoscopes; some respirators; ventilators …

“There’s no incubators that work; there’s high maternal and infant mortality there as well.

“It’s an ongoing thing.”

The Rankins pray constantly for the people they’ve left behind.

“We’re in constant contact with them and we message through WhatsApp with everyone there to see how they’re going,” Mrs Rankin said.

“It was really a hard decision to make or to come to terms with, having to leave and to leave people when they’re in their most need.

“You hear about people complaining about the small things here, which is hard to adjust to compared to what’s happening over there.

“That’s why we’re trying to help the hospitals with medical supplies.

“We keep in contact every day with someone, at least, in Timor so that they can see that we’re thinking about them and praying for them, because if (COVID-19) hits, it will hit very hard.”

To help support Michele and Gabby Rankin’s efforts in East Timor through Palms Australia or to inquire about volunteering with Palms Australia call (02) 9560 5333.

Palms Australia is registered charity that has been working to reduce poverty through long-term, skilled volunteering for almost 60 years.

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