How an East Timorese couple overcame slayings and Covid-19 to chase Kiwi education

Husband and wife Nelson Freitas and Maya Gutjer never imagined as children they'd one day get the opportunity to study in New Zealand, let alone for one of them to have to do so during a pandemic. 

Maya Gutjer and Nelson Freitas with their children. Source: Supplied

Recent communication studies graduate Ms Gutjer said she was fortunate to even finish her education in the first place and never thought she would do so overseas.

For Mr Freitas, he said all he thought about while growing up was staying alive.

Both born in the 1980s in East Timor, then occupied by Indonesia, Mr Freitas and Ms Gutjer grew up during times of unrest in one of the world’s newest nations.

After the country voted for its independence from Indonesia in 1999, militia and military slayings soon followed. It killed an estimated 1500 East Timorese and displaced hundreds of thousands more to Indonesia.

“As soon as we heard the result of the election that people wanted to be independent, Dili was on fire [from attacks from pro-Indonesia militias],” Ms Gutjer said. She was 15 at the time and grew up in the small village of Viqueque south-east of East Timor’s capital Dili.

“They killed people they suspected as rebels that fought for independence. My mum didn’t want to go to Indonesia, so we ran to the forest.”

Ms Gutjer said she was too young to fully understand the situation at the time.

Her family and siblings camped out near a river and ate what they could to survive for a month until international United Nations troops were deployed in East Timor in an attempt to stabilise the region.

Things were more dangerous for Mr Freitas in Dili, who didn’t know until after the vote for independence that his father was secretly involved in the movement against Indonesia.

“My father was suspected by the military, so we had to flee. Otherwise, the whole family could’ve gotten killed,” he said.

“For a couple of months, being in the forest, it was not easy for us kids. If it had been longer we wouldn’t have been able to survive because of starvation.”

Life returned to some semblance of normal in the early 2000s, and the couple met at a university party in 2004 — Ms Gutjer was a chemistry student, while Mr Freitas studied computing.

But life and studies stalled again in 2006 as East Timor found itself thrown in conflict again, this time between its military and its government in Dili. 

It was their country’s battle for nationhood, though, that drove them to study overseas — both for themselves, but also for their fledgling country.

“If your country has just got independence, there would be lots to do. I just wanted to do something for my country,” Ms Gutjer said.

Both applied and received the New Zealand Government's aid programme scholarship.

The programme aimed to give scholars training in New Zealand so they could return home to support their country’s development. The move to Auckland was something the couple called “life-changing”. 

“East Timor really needed to be informed about its situation. It was a new country. We didn’t have a newspaper outside of [the capital city] Dili, and some didn’t have enough education to read in 1999,” Ms Gutjer said.

“Radio was the only way we could inform people.”

Although she had some broadcast experience in East Timor, Ms Gutjer said studying in New Zealand changed the way her colleagues looked at her.

“People recognise me as an academic person now. Before, people used to look down on me because I didn’t have an academic background,” she said.

“People really listen to me now. I feel more confident.”

Maya Gutjer in traditional wear at her graduation ceremony in December 2019. Source: Supplied

She said she was fortunate to be back in East Timor and not to be caught by the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, Mr Freitas, still in Auckland finishing his masters in computing at Unitec, wasn’t so lucky. He said being away from his family and children while completing the final months of his degree during the pandemic was starting to take its toll. 

“When you find your family’s away and they’re also struggling financially in this emergency situation all countries are going through, it’s difficult for me,” he said.

“I’m in charge of my family and I have to be responsible for my family. Being away is not a good feeling for me.

“Meanwhile, I have to work hard to finish my studies.”

He said Covid-19 restrictions on study spaces like the library added an extra challenge.

Mr Freitas said while there was help available for international scholarship students like him during the pandemic, he couldn’t always open up the way he wanted to with his supervisors, especially about the way he felt.

"So, most of the time, I talk to Maya. But other things I keep to myself and, sometimes, it's really heavy.

“Hopefully we can go back to school and do whatever we need to do to finish so I can go back home.”

A Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson told 1 NEWS education providers were being encouraged to provide additional pastoral care to support the wellbeing of its scholars.

The spokesperson said applications for the scholarship continue to be assessed throughout the pandemic, but MFAT couldn’t bring any scholars to the country until borders reopened. They said the level of financial support for New Zealand Aid Programme scholars still studying in the country hadn't changed throughout the pandemic.

Mr Freitas said he was confident New Zealand would remain an attractive place for international students after the pandemic and didn’t rule out a future return.

For now, though, reuniting with family was what he was looking forward to most given everything they’d gone through.

“We achieved this together as a family.”