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Meeting the Concern team

Paula Dobbyn is a freelance journalist from Alaska who recently completed a master of laws degree in human rights through Queen's University Belfast and National University of Ireland, Galway. She is spending four months in Concern's Timor Leste headquarters in Dili working in communications.

The tarmac sizzled as the Indonesian-owned Merpati Airlines jet landed in Dili at midday. Passengers disembarked into oven-like temperatures and what appeared to be a jungle airport: tropical vegetation and towering brown mountains overlooking the runway, UN camouflaged trucks dotting the parking area and a handful of New Zealand peacekeepers milling about.

On the way to the Concern office, the dirt roads and tin shacks that define Dili reminded me of Managua, Nicaragua, my former home in the 1980s. Battered by earthquakes, military dictatorship, revolution, war and a trade embargo, Managua showed its wear and tear. Dili, too, I imagined, had seen better days. Or had it? Was it always this rundown? I wondered. As the truck made its way to the Concern office in the Villa Verde neighbourhood, we passed dozens of street vendors with pushcarts, selling cold drinks, roasted corn on the cob, coconuts, cigarettes, candy and the like. Pigs, goats, feral dogs and chickens roamed the streets with abandon, scavenging food. Tiny girls, barely school-age, swaddled infants in their arms. Old women, wearing sarongs and wrinkled faces, walked the broken sidewalks, seemingly oblivious to the scorching heat. Unemployed men sat around smoking clove cigarettes and chatting. Barefoot boys in tattered clothes kicked a ball in run-down grass patch that serves as a city park. Sad-looking buildings stood decrepit, their stucco peeled off and their crumbled concrete spray-painted with graffiti. A dramatically beautiful and depressing place, I thought, glancing up at the enormous mountains that ring the city.

The truck took a right, a sharp left and another right, and then turned into the driveway of an ordinary-looking house, painted pale yellow, with a Concern sign on the front. Flowered shrubs lined the driveway that opened into a sun-baked car park and dusty courtyard at the building’s rear. Mari Anne, Concern’s programme manager for livelihoods here, led me into the office. The staff gathered around and warmly greeted the frazzled newcomer.

After a quick round of introductions and conversation, the driver took me to one of Concern’s “team houses,” which will serve as home until February. It’s a simple tile-floored house with running water, mosquito netting, fans, refrigerators, TV and DVD player: all the basic comforts of home. I quickly settled in and returned to the Concern office, where I met with the assistant country director, Tapan Barman, an Indian man who was raised in Bangladesh. Later that evening, he and Bubu, Concern’s organisational manager in Timor Leste, invited me to a beachside restaurant. While we ate our meal, we discussed Concern’s work in Timor Leste, and talked about local politics. I glanced at the stars and listened to the sound of ocean. Mostly I thought about how fortunate I was to be here.