Isabel's lessons in humanity


Dr Isabel Guterres and Professor Greg CravenYesterday Retired General Peter Cosgrove delivered the first of this year's Boyer Lectures for the ABC. The choice of Cosgrove was no doubt a tribute to his success at leading the INTERFET peacekeeping force in East Timor ten years ago. It was a fraught moment when nobody was sure how, or indeed whether, the country would be able to rebuild itself after the violent and destructive end to the 25 years of Indonesian occupation. Skillful leadership was required, and Cosgrove is credited with having delivered.

Interviewed by Geraldine Doogue on Friday, he said that you win a military struggle when you achieve a state of affairs that permits you to leave the locals to take care of the problems that remain. His message is that local citizens with strong leadership skills are critical to fragile nations maintaining security and fostering development.

He also said in the interview that women 'make the most magnificent leaders. They do it in a different style, they find a way of success that is less bull at a gate.'

Such a woman is Dr Isabel Guterres. She came to Australia as a young refugee from East Timor in the early '80s. She obtained health care qualifications and leadership skills before returning to East Timor in 1999 to work with local teams to assist in the development of East Timorese nationhood. Recently the Australian Catholic University awarded her its highest honour, Doctor of the University, in recognition of her lifetime commitment to justice and service, and especially to refugees.

On receiving the honour, she said that she derived her humanitarian values from her parents and teachers, as well as the refugee workers who gave her food, shelter and education in Thailand. 'I was just a name and a face, but I was treated like one of them.'

Of the religious and other health and welfare professionals she mixed with in Australia, she said: 'The dedication given to their work inspired me to bring my own talents to those who struggle for justice and for a decent quality of life. Working as a nurse at different types of hospitals ... I learnt in these contexts the spirit of true humanitarian work.'

It is significant that she received the kind of welcome in Australia that gave her a particular set of skills and values that motivated her to return to her homeland to make an important contribution to its rebuilding. Had she been treated differently in Thailand and Australia, she may have opted for a life of greater material wellbeing in Australia. Isabel's story is a lesson in the value of treating refugees with humanity.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. Pictured: Isabel Guterres with ACU Vice-Chancellor Professor Greg Craven, in Bacau, East Timor.

Topic tags: Isabel Guterres, refugee, east timor, peter cosgrove, michael mullins, asylum seekers, boat people



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Existing comments

Congratulations to Isabel Guterres, the Catholic University and all who support refugees wherever they are found.

Ray O'Donoghue | 09 November 2009  

If only these remarkable achievements of social justice were made more public.

Bernie Introna | 09 November 2009  

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