BAUCAU, Timor-Leste --
A small schoolhouse close to town center and overlooking the coast, with windows letting in a cool ocean breeze during East Timor’s endless summer, sounds like a nice location to learn.
For students of the University of Peace public health school classroom and dorm annex here, however, an old deteriorating building, threatening to collapse, was more of a distraction than an educational home.
Thanks to a partnership program between the U.S. and its Indo-Asia-Pacific allies, U.S. Airmen, New Zealand soldiers, and their host country military counterparts of the Falintil-Forças de Defesa de Timor-Leste (F-FDTL), helped to provide vital repairs and improvements to the school as part of a Pacific Angel-Timor-Leste renovation project.
Until the very beginning of construction, the building was used to educate and house more than 20 medical trainees, who would then gain their practical experience at the local hospital.
“The school was built many years ago and was used to train nurses and health services workers,” said Dr. Gélasio Antonio da Costa-Riberio, Baucau district health administrator and representative of the University of Peace. “Our maintenance budget was very limited and during the rainy season, water leaked everywhere. Sometimes we had to move classes completely. For the students, this was incredibly disruptive and affected their ability to learn. However, in the last few years, the building increasingly deteriorated and became a risk to health and safety for our students.”
In only five days, three sites, including a small rural medical outpost on the outskirts of Baucau, received some form of U.S. engineering assistance, from pouring concrete walkways, replacing ceilings and walls, to installing basic plumbing and electric. With only weeks of planning, engineers from the Pacific Air Forces planned the fast-paced reconstruction plan that gave the engineers little time to complete the ambitious projects.
“We only had a short amount of time to plan and prepare for this exercise,” said Master Sgt. Daniel Trevino, Pacific Angel 15-2 lead engineer. “Seeing the conditions the students were living and trying to learn in was sad. When we arrived the building had no doors or windows and the faculty worked out of one single class room, while 20 people lived on a few square feet of the dormitory. We knew we really wanted to help out the dormitory because they spend a lot of time there and that’s where they live.”
However, after decades of neglect due to a lack of resources, the building offered a few challenges to the team of PACAF, New Zealand and Timorese engineers, Trevino said.
“The electrical work was extremely dangerous, taped, and connected haphazardly, and the entire building worked off of one power strip,” he said. “We pretty much started from scratch. The university itself hopes to expand this building and get in more students. This project will definitely help do this.”
The original building had no running water and was constructed completely without plumbing, save for several defunct toilets. A small team of military plumbers gave the building a main water line and operational western-style toilets and sinks.
“When I first got here, I thought this was a pretty big project, and wasn’t too convinced we could get it done,” said New Zealand Lance Corporal Sid Albert-Davies, plumber with the New Zealand army. “Now that we’ve gotten a start on it we’re looking pretty good- everything runs well and while things may be a bit difficult at times, we make it work.”
Together with his plumbing counterparts, Albert-Davies set up a main waterline for the building and ensured the newly installed bathrooms had running water and drainage.
“It’s good to come into a community like this and help out,” he said. “Working with the Airmen and F-FDTL is great and the engineers’ base language is generic, although we may call things by a different name. But everybody on the team is nice and friendly and it’s a great experience working together. We’re all in the military to make a difference and working on this school is really quite rewarding.”
Mixed military teams also worked to fit door frames, plywood sheeting, and ceiling tiles to the existing structure and create a healthy, livable space for Baucau’s students.
“Working here has it’s challenges and rewards,” Trevino said. “The equipment here is very basic and we don’t have some of the niceties of certain tools and materials easily accessible. You have to really search to find what you need at times. So a lot of things like door or window frames have to be made on site or have to be tweaked and modified to fit. It’s a lot of work and it’s a constant push and pull.”
The condition of the building and materials required skill and ability to improvise from the engineers, who worked extended hours to meet their approaching deadline.
“PACANGEL is nothing like home station, but it is pretty fun for me,” said Airman 1st Class Benjamin Joyce, 35th Civil Engineer Squadron carpenter. “When we have to replace something at home, it usually is pretty square and true and you can put new stuff in easily. It’s a little harder here because frames are not aligned well and we have to work a bit harder to make it fit.”
The capacity-building, civil-military project took place under the PACANGEL construct, which allows U.S. military members and their international partners to team up in engineering, medical and subject-matter expert exchanges that improve disaster response and humanitarian assistance capabilities in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
“In the states we mainly maintain and repair,” Trevino said. “Here, we worked a complete gut of the building. It’s a lot of work and we only have five days, but the guys are all working hard and getting the job done. Our construction guys from the U.S., F-FDTL and New Zealand are all top notch. They are good craftsmen and hard workers. The group has meshed really well and all groups are working strongly together. They know how to make happen.”
With the changed environment, the school’s district administrator said he hopes the school can become a nationally approved and accredited training site, which would prevent young students from having to travel to far-away Dili in order to continue their studies in a safe and motivating environment worthy of their aspirations.
“We are very thankful for the help that the U.S. and New Zealand forces are giving us,” Costa-Riberio said. “Without these repairs the building was threatening to collapse at any time. Because of the support of the (PACANGEL 15-2 team), our building will last and be a safe and motivational environment for our aspiring health professionals to work, live and train for the future.”
Since 2007, PACANGEL missions have improved the lives of tens of thousands of people and helped local government and international aid agencies respond more quickly to emergencies. It enables them to assume control of recovery efforts in their wake by enabling them to more efficiently use equipment, training and connections they already have to provide medical and engineering assistance to local citizens in need.