6 November 2020

Nearly two weeks into her one-year assignment, Jolene Simoes, senior communications adviser in Timor-Leste found herself on a plane back home to New Zealand due to COVID-19. 

“There had been some uncertainty about my going to Timor-Leste in the first place,” Jolene says. “It was in March, when the COVID-19 situation was still developing. On the third day after my arrival they started repatriating volunteers in the high-risk categories.  

A few days later Timor-Leste suffered disastrous floods, which triggered landslides and caused mud and sewage to flow into homes, schools, churches - including the homes of volunteers. My house was on higher ground, so I was helping the others to clean up when the news arrived that we had to leave. 

“In March we were all hopelessly optimistic that we’d be able to return in a couple of months. No-one could have fathomed what was about to unfold globally. It was all quite unsettling, as many of us had given up homes and jobs to be in Timor-Leste.” 

Anyone could have been forgiven for giving up at that point, but Jolene is a seasoned volunteer with previous experience in India, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Kenya, and Cambodia in the field of conservation. She was eager to carry on. Two weeks after her return to New Zealand she contacted VSA’s partner organisation in Timor-Leste, The Asia Foundation – an American non-profit international development organisation working across Asia. 

"I’d only met the staff once,” Jolene says. “I’d just had my orientation in Timor-Leste and my first language lesson in Tetum. That was to be the foundation for carrying on my assignment as an e-volunteer.”  

Jolene’s assignment had been focused around mentoring the foundation’s junior communications officer, Akito Ximenes, in everything from the use of social media and the design of marketing materials to strategic communications planning.  

“I was online from 12pm to 8pm while I was e-volunteering full-time,” Jolene says. “We worked on COVID-19 response communications, sending out a daily email and social media updates on COVID-19 awareness on what was happening politically and in neighbouring countries. 

“Covid-19 was a huge risk for Timor-Leste, because they just didn’t have the facilities to deal with a pandemic with infrastructure lacking. But it is amazing what a small government and its people can achieve. Policing the borders has been a huge priority and they’ve only had 27 cases to date.” 

Jolene has since worked with Akito on a large COVID survey to ascertain people’s concerns. She has also worked on the launch of the Asia Foundation’s “Let’s Read” campaign which has been rolled out through 18 countries in the region. 

“It’s the first free on-line library in Asia,” Jolene says. ”They have had over 100 books translated into Tetum with printed versions as well.  

“Working remotely, we were able to film a video of the United Nations regional coordinator in Timor-Leste promoting Let’s Readedited the video, along with Akito, late into the night and this acted as a launching pad for the campaign which successfully unfolded in the city and districts. It was important to show parents and teachers just how important it was to read to their children.” 

With Jolene’s help, Akito is now learning how to set up film locations and sets while seeking out good news stories. “We featured a good news story of a community policewoman who rescued a water buffalo in her village, which was a strong female empowerment story at the time – in a country where gender disparity is a constant issue.”  

Jolene says e-volunteering is completely different from being on the ground. “I was sad to miss out on the field trips and interaction with the Timorese people, but it’s been very enriching to work with Akito. He has taught me so much about Timorese culture which I really appreciate.”  

The main challenge has been juggling her time to fit in a full-time job and e-volunteering, organising Zoom calls in different time zones with the Foundation country manager in Toronto, the development manager in the Philippines and with Akito twice weekly in Timor-Leste, where the internet is prone to glitches.  

“The only reason I’ve been able to carry on for months is that the work is exciting,” she says. “It makes me feel connected to the country I had to leave. I’m still part of it in a way and it’s special to feel you are making a little bit of difference being so far away. 

Would she recommend it to others? “Yes, but it is definitely a challenge, you need to be passionate about what you’re doing and look after yourself as well.”