By Ms. Zema Semunegus

Every good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, with a great deal of transition along the way.  Mine does.  And although I have just arrived in the country, I can see how Timor-Leste’s story—in so many ways—does, too. On World Humanitarian Day and every day, history and our quest for a brighter future bring us together.

Shortly after arriving in Dili I had an opportunity to visit Timorese families who are recovering after flooding and landslides triggered by the powerful cyclone in April. Despite all they have been through, the people of Balibar Village welcomed us warmly and in good spirits. I chatted with several women and children, often the ones hardest hit when disasters strike. Many of them were thin in stature but all wore a broad, healthy smile. I was encouraged by their stories, and I did not hear hopelessness—from anyone. 

Now over 100 years old, Olinda Soares Sarmento brought us into her humble home and explained the damage the floodwaters caused, including to her roof.  She told us about the fear she had when the cyclone hit, not knowing what to do or where to go. Mana Olinda was afraid of being alone in those critical hours and losing her home, but held on resolutely as the storm passed through, eventually making her way safely to her sister’s house. 

I am pleased that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and our implementing partner, the International Organization for Migration, collaborating with Timor-Leste’s Civil Protection Authority, were able to bring her essential household supplies and materials to fix her roof.  Even during these days compounded by challenges of COVID-19, this is a positive step in the right direction and it was inspiring to be part of it.

Over the course of her long life, Mana Olinda has been through a lot, including the long armed struggle for independence and recurrent, devastating storms that reach Timor-Leste’s shores and mountaintops. 

I have lived through some challenges, too. I was born in Ethiopia. My parents passed on Ethiopian and Eritrean heritage, and as a child, I witnessed the tragedies of war, famine, and poverty at home. Like the unexpected fury of a cyclone—or in my case, the fallout from a military coup—life can change in a moment’s notice. I was 13 when my upper middle class family became refugees overnight.  In the turbulent months to come, we all made our way to the United States to start a new life, leaving everything behind but finding so much more in store for us.

Later, I traveled throughout Asia with my father, who worked for many years with the United Nations and the World Bank in Vietnam and Bangladesh. What we experience as children affects the course of our lives.  That was certainly true for me.  I decided over 25 years ago that I wanted to help the world's most vulnerable as much as I could. 

After completing my university degrees in the United States, I worked for international non-governmental organizations in Eastern Europe and the Horn of Africa. Later, USAID gave me the opportunity to help promote food security, health, economic growth and human rights in Africa, including South Sudan and once again in Ethiopia. After working in the USAID office that handles disaster response, I was privileged to be assigned in Asia as the new USAID/Timor-Leste Mission Director.

I have always wanted to work somewhere where I could help rebuild. Many years ago I learned about Timor-Leste and the resilient people who live here, and I was thrilled to learn of my chance to work here. It is an honor to join in partnership with the Timorese people and government, especially now at the start of a new five-year strategy making progress towards an inclusive, prosperous, healthy, and self-reliant Timor-Leste.

How would we do that?  For a start, we will help women and young people learn skills and get the support they need to find good jobs and contribute to Timor-Leste's economic growth beyond the oil sector. So we want to see the private sector grow through a diversified economy with the support of the Timor-Leste government working openly together with civil society. 

I firmly believe women have a tremendous role to play in development to help everyone lead a better life.  Over the years in many countries I have worked to help create more opportunities for women to speak up for their rights, get the financial support they need to succeed, and help each other thrive.  Women need the respect of their families and communities for this to happen.  They also need to live without fear of violence or discrimination.  Women are resourceful. They can help manage a good job and lead a happy family together.

Thinking back to my early days, and also to my earliest impressions in Dili of strong, resolute Timorese like Mana Olina who are looking ahead, far beyond past struggles and current humanitarian challenges, I am encouraged and hopeful. We can work towards a better, more prosperous future.  With some support from USAID and other partners, together we can develop the skills everyone needs to succeed for good health, meaningful jobs, good friendships, and lasting peace. 

Ms. Zema Semunegus is USAID/Timor-Leste Mission Director. Read her bio here.

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USAID/Timor-Leste Mission Director Zema Semunegus, right, helps deliver assistance to Timorese families rebuilding after recent floods.
Cris Guterres/USAID