Subject: AU: First lady asks alma mater for a helping hand

The Australian

April 14, 2003 Monday NSW Country Edition

First lady asks alma mater for a helping hand

Sascha Hutchinson

A Victorian primary school is helping rebuild East Timor's education system, writes Sascha Hutchinson

PICTURE your school. Now remove all but one classroom, rip up the carpet and leave a dirt floor. Take the glass from the windows and remove all the furniture.

There are no lights in the ceiling and no books or pencils. You will house your entire school -- perhaps 200 students -- in this one room, with only four teachers.

This is the reality for the children of East Timor, the world's newest nation, which lost 90 per cent of its school infrastructure during the violence following the independence vote in 1999.

Now, Australian-born Kirsty Sword Gusmao, wife of East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao and a trained teacher, is hoping Australian schools will support a friendship program designed to raise awareness about East Timor.

The program, initiated by Sword Gusmao's Alola Foundation, was launched at her alma mater, Eaglehawk Primary School, where her father was principal and her mother a music teacher.

The children at Eaglehawk Primary, near Bendigo in Victoria, have formed a link with children from Balibar Primary School in East Timor.

Since launching the program, Eaglehawk Primary principal Heather Ridge says schools from NSW, Tasmania and Victoria have made inquiries about joining it.

Ridge says friendship with children from East Timor is invaluable for her students.

She says they are learning about children living a less privileged life than their own, learning about another country and at the same time helping to raise money and collect supplies to help rebuild East Timorese schools.

The first lady of East Timor visited the University of Melbourne last week to garner support for the program.

Sword Gusmao, her husband and two children, Alexandre and Kay Olok, live about 10 minutes away from Balibar Primary.

She has now expanded the work of the Alola Foundation -- which was started to help women sufferers of gender-based violence -- to respond to a wider range of demands, including education and maternal and child health.

"There's certainly a huge need for support for the schools in East Timor, " Sword Gusmao says.

"Some of the schools have been rebuilt through projects of the Ministry of Education, the national reroofing project and others.

"But in terms of resources for teachers and students, there's still a very long way to go.

"So I guess this project is designed to fill in the gaps where the Ministry of Education hasn't been able to go. But much more than that, the project is also about raising awareness in the Australian community, through children, about the reality of life in East Timor. "

Prior to the presidential election last year, a nationwide survey was done to determine the priorities of the East Timorese people in rebuilding the troubled nation.

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