Hard-working, respectful and warm... we could learn from our Timorese guests
Too many of us have a habit of running Northern Ireland down. But for the people of East Timor, the province is a place where the streets are paved with gold, writes Gordon Peake
Not all people in Northern Ireland will necessarily have heard of East Timor, yet there is probably not a single person in this small south-east Asian nation that does not know, or have affection for, the 'Wee Six' and particularly the market towns of mid Ulster.
I lived in East Timor for four years and no matter where I was, mentioning that I came from Northern Ireland would prompt the same smiling and positive reaction.
For East Timorese, places like Dungannon and Portadown are spoken about in tones on a par with how we might think nowadays of Sydney or Melbourne. Northern Ireland is a promised land, a place where the streets are paved with gold.
No one knows the true figures for sure, but there are estimated to be several thousand Timorese in Northern Ireland, with as many more in England. Many are working in factories like Moy Park and Dungannon Meats, slicing up the chickens, turkey and pork that we get on our supermarket shelves.
Just who are these visitors from far away? How have they ended up here? And how are they faring?
East Timor is a former Portuguese colony of a million people that is located about an hour north of Australia. It is slowly recovering from decades of devastating conflict.
During the Indonesian occupation (1975-1999), nearly 100,000 people out of a population of one million suffered conflict-related deaths.
Although a place of astounding natural beauty, with mountains on a par with the Mournes that sweep down to the sea, it is a tough place to live. In spite of oil and gas reserves, East Timor remains a desperately poor country. According to the United Nations, 49.9% of the population scrape by on less than a dollar a day.
It is trying to escape this poverty and build a better life that has sent Timorese to live working in hourly-wage jobs nearly half a world away.
Through a loophole kept open during the Indonesian occupation, Timorese are eligible for Portuguese citizenship, which duly entitles them to work in all the countries of the European Union.
The story goes that a Northern Ireland recruitment agency went over to Portugal in the late-1990s with the aim of hiring some local butchers. A Timorese happened to be at the job fair and he signed up to go to Northern Ireland.
He was followed by one friend, then another, then another, each sending back word of plentiful jobs. Many more are anxious to follow them.
Each weekday morning, the line at the Portuguese embassy in Dili, the East Timorese capital, is long as hundreds of Timorese apply for passports seeking to join them.
Men with families leave their wives and children for years to go to mid Ulster, sending money back home to their families.
In East Timor, you can spot the emigrant families by the quality of the houses their money has built. I remember meeting a whiskery old man who told me that he thought Northern Ireland was like El Dorado.
That this brave and resilient people are striking out and making it in my homeland (like many Northern Irish, I now live in Australia, too) should be a source of immense pride.
It amazes me to hear Tetun – the national language of East Timor – spoken in the streets. It equally astounds me to hear young Timorese speak English with Northern Ireland accents much thicker than mine.
The East Timorese credit their employers as being decent, fair and respectful. Some of us are doing great work to help them settle in.
Work by doughty organisatons, such as the South Tyrone Empowerment Program, run by Bernadette McAliskey, is helping them settle in here. I met a teacher last week helping teach the new immigrants English, and there are others like him.
Of course, these streets turn out not to be all paved with gold. In trying to squirrel away as much money as possible, many East Timorese live jammed in cramped and dingy conditions. Some of their experiences of racism and small-town prejudice that they have encountered makes me want to get back on the plane.
A nation of emigrants isn't universally welcoming to many of the new visitors who, like so many immigrants around the world, are doing jobs some locals feel it beneath themselves to do.
When I lived in East Timor, I was treated with respect every day and these people deserve the same.
Although an indictment of the economic conditions back in their homeland, Portadown and Dungannon are becoming glorious mosaics of people from faraway lands who have come here for a better life.
We should embrace that and feel proud that our wee country is a city on a hill.
Gordon Peake, who is originally from Downpatrick, is a research fellow at the Australian National University and author of Beloved Land: Stories, Struggles & Secrets from Timor-Leste (Scribe), available from No Alibis bookstore, Botanic Avenue, Belfast.