Twenty-six-year-old Fredelio Lafu Sila is a considered a hero among the people of Oecusse, Timor-Leste. Known as Lafu “Pombo” (Lafu “the Carrier Pigeon”), he grew up in humble circumstances in the small village of Padimau, the second of seven children, and struggled to stay away from fights in school even as his restless eye looked out to the broader world beyond his home.
In 1999, when Lafu was 15 years old, violent conflict erupted across Timor following the UN referendum and subsequent vote for an independent nation, forcing him to abandon his studies and go into hiding. A rural exclave surrounded by Indonesia, Oecusse district was cut off from the rest of Timor and in desperate need of help. Agreeing their only hope was to send a messenger to Dili, independence leaders in the district asked the street-smart Lafu to smuggle an important letter across the Indonesian border. Despite the danger involved, he agreed and, with the letter sewn into the sole of his shoe, set forth on a harrowing journey. He was eventually able to make his way back to the Timorese capital to deliver the vital message – only after being detained several times and making a daring escape. As a result of Lafu’s bravery, an Australian stabilization force was able to enter and secure Oecusse district.
For his service, Lafu was declared a national hero. He had high hopes of joining the military, but became discouraged when he failed to meet the army’s height requirements. Unable to find work in Oecusse and plagued by memories of the conflict, he began drinking heavily and was arrested several times for engaging in fights. Within his community, he was quickly developing a dual identity, as both a hero and a hopeless drunk.
In May 2009, Lafu heard about the USAID-funded Prepara Ami ba Servisu (PAS) program from a friend and enrolled at the Forum Peduli Wanita Oecusse (FPWO) Learning Center in Pante Makassar -- one of 23 centers across Timor-Leste that have provided PAS Work Readiness training to over 2,000 out-of-school, low-skilled youth. Through an eight-month program that combines classroom learning and hands-on work experience, PAS participants acquire the knowledge, skills, and attitudes linked to better livelihood outcomes. At FPWO, staff had initial reservations about accepting Lafu, given his reputation, but PAS trainer Ramila da Costa considered his circumstances and persuaded her colleagues to take a chance on this exceptional young man. “Lafu came to PAS with nothing but a realization that it was time to change his way of life,” Ramila explains.
Over the course of the program, Lafu’s attitude and behavior changed dramatically as he began the path towards a brighter future. “I am thankful for the PAS Program,” he says, reflecting on his experience. “It has helped me change my life for the better.”
Equipped with self-management, leadership, and business skills as well as a micro-grant of $100, Lafu and three other PAS participants formed a theater troupe that now engages 45 young people in writing and performing plays and music about gender equality, local history and culture. To date, they have performed for the Secretary of State for the Promotion of Equality, the Secretary of State for Youth and Sport, and the District Administrator of Oecusse.
Reflecting on his accomplishments, Lafu says his greatest source of pride comes from supporting others. “Through the theater troupe, I can help my members financially so they, too, can improve their lives,” he says. “I’m still young. I’m still learning…and plan to develop the troupe.” For him, integrating community service and creative expression is necessary. “I need to do this – it’s part of who I am,” he explains. “I believe our theatre troupe can do good things. I believe there’s a demand and that the success of the troupe is possible with good performances, good marketing and the support of my community.”
Outside of the theater, Lafu has continued to develop himself and find success, including accepting a position as a warehouse manager for the Ministry of Tourism and Commerce, where he makes $220 a month. Thanks to a six-month scholarship offered by the District Administration Office, he is also pursuing a degree at night in public management at the Dili Institute of Technology’s Oecusse campus. Looking back over the changes in his life, Lafu is aware that while the USAID PAS program provided him with an opportunity for a new start and accompanied him on his first steps, it was up to him to apply what he learned and take advantage of opportunities that came along. With a new job and his studies, a network of support in his community and self-management skills, he has already put his long and troubled past behind him, building on the positive ground gained through the PAS program.