Like many young Australian girls, Jessica Sanders used to dream of where she would go, and what she would do when she finally ‘grew up’. 

The youngest of three children - and the only girl (“always a bit of a special position” she admits) - Sanders would sit at the family dinner table and listen to her parents talk of their life in Papua New Guinea in the years before she was born.

JesswithkidsinMaluku

A DREAM COME TRUE: Since 2003 Jessica Sanders has worked among the people of the Maluku Isalands.

 

"When she learned the plight of thousands of (mostly Christian) refugees who had fled the religious violence in Indonesia’s Maluku Islands during 1999 and 2000, and were now living in cramped conditions rampant with disease, Sanders suddenly gained personal perspective on an international problem."

Occasionally they would recollect their stories in Pidgon English, and while their young daughter may not have understood the strange amalgam of words, the motivation behind them was clear."My parents shared a real passion for the people," she says. "I would often flick through their photo album a-dream about being old enough to live in the same place. I had no idea what they did when they were there-a-I didn"t even know where PNG was-although I thought it mu-have been in Africa-because the people in the photos had dark skin!"

“My parents shared a real passion for the people,” she says. “I would often flick through their photo album and dream about being old enough to live in the same place. I had no idea what they did when they were there, and I didn’t even know where PNG was, although I thought it must have been in Africa, because the people in the photos had dark skin!”

By the age of eight, and still dreaming of working overseas, Sanders began supporting a Nigerian missionary, regularly contributing 80 cents of her hard-earned pocket money. 

However by the time she finished secondary school, and with a university course beckoning, she began to wonder how - and when - the dream would become reality.

“There were a few things I was sure would eventuate…but I was convinced that I would go to Africa, and that I’d be working with children,” she says.

With a freshly-minted mathematics degree, she began exploring her options, only to discover that her qualifications didn’t match the position she was seeking in Africa.

“(So) my eyes started to look at the broader world, in fact, closer to home. Indonesia presented itself as a possibility, but with the Bali bombing and a lot of bad press, I was wary…and I must confess, pretty ignorant about Indonesia. There were so many islands, so many problems. I think that over the years, my mind had shut off to the nations in South East Asia.”

Somewhat ironically, it was those very ‘problems’ that opened her mind to Indonesia. When she learned the plight of thousands of (mostly Christian) refugees who had fled the religious violence in Indonesia’s Maluku Islands during 1999 and 2000, and were now living in cramped conditions rampant with disease, Sanders suddenly gained personal perspective on an international problem.

“When I realised I was able to offer some kind of support - with my little maths degree and a passion to serve - I couldn’t really say no,” she says.

Since 2003, Sanders has been working with the Indonesian-based NGO, ‘Bless Indonesia Today’ which provides mostly medical aid to both the refugees and impoverished of the Maluku Islands. 

Her first year was spent in the refugee camps on the island of Sulawesi where she helped home-school the children of Melbourne-born medical aid workers Peter and Esther Scarborough.

“What an adventure to teach these kids - nothing like normal school at all! No only did I have three energetic children to contend with, but ducks, cats, dogs, pigs, chickens, goats, birds, and a mischievous monkey who would all enthusiastically join in lessons. Added to that was the heat and the culture which were far cry from my Toorak home (in Melbourne).”

At the end of 2003 came a change of location. With many of the refugees returning to their homes, the ‘Bless Indonesia Today’ base moved to the more isolated Maluku island of Halmahera. For the whole team, it was period of adjustment Sanders explains.

“There was no internet or mobile phone coverage; there were oxen and carts in the streets, and a (very) relaxed culture. The air was hotter, the humidity greater, and the mosquitoes were in larger numbers - but the patients almost outnumbered the mozzies: massive tumours, malaria, tuberculosis, war injuries from the bloody conflict four years earlier, and shocking burns patients that seemed to come from all around the area. All were desperately in need of treatment, yet so patient in waiting for it.”

“I felt ashamed of my ignorance of both them and their struggle. As brothers and sisters in Christ, I knew so little about the ‘jihad’ they had suffered under, and of the terror they felt during a conflict that wiped out so many of their family members”.

While Sanders continued to work as a teacher, her job description soon broadened into unpacking medicines, assisting in the clinic, even “holding the operating torch.” But it was more than her job description that grew. In that year, so did her love for the Indonesian people.

“I felt ashamed of my ignorance of both them and their struggle. As brothers and sisters in Christ, I knew so little about the ‘jihad’ they had suffered under, and of the terror they felt during a conflict that wiped out so many of their family members”.

Today, Sander’s role with the organisation continues to develop and she is currently responsible for the support and organisation of many short-term teams who arrive to assist with medical, building, children’s, or counselling programs.

“With many people around the world gaining an interest in Indonesia, we have numerous short-term teams interested in visiting us and helping out in any way they can,” she explains. 

Sanders’ other task is to distribute reading glasses to the people of Halmahera. Made possible through financial donations from (mostly) Australia and the USA, this support is another part of the growing ‘Bless Indonesia Today’ outreach.

“The work is continuing and growing through the dedicated staff and the support of many people. With the construction of a small hospital underway, (it) will go on for many years.”

Sanders has recently returned from a two week trip to Banda Aceh where Bless Indonesia Today has recently established a five year medical and building program.

Conceding that the two weeks only gave her “the smallest snapshot” of a much bigger picture, Sanders considers it a privilege to have both seen and experienced a variety of post-tsunami aid programs.

“The most impressive work I saw was a mobile hospital sent by the Danish Government – a maze of orange bubble tents…but this was no weekend camping facility! A medicine room led to a pre-operative room, then to an operating theatre and a high dependency unit. They had managed to set the (mainly orthopaedic) facility, and take in patients all within just a few days.” 

However, as Sanders was preparing to leave Aceh, so was the Danish medical team. “By the time I had reached Aceh, most of the foreign medical workers and surgeons had been asked to leave…this was a great blow to the people of Aceh,” she explains.

A ‘blow’ she was to soon experience first-hand on an emergency visit to the local understaffed and overflowing public hospital.

“One of our translators had an allergic reaction to some medication and had been taken to the emergency department. At the entrance to the emergency room, there was no ambulance driveway, no waiting room…just a mass of thongs and sandals outside the door.”

While Sanders waited with her friend, four seriously-injured car accident patients were rushed in. All bleeding profusely, she expected them to receive immediate medical treatment.

“But there just wasn’t the staff,” she recalls. “I watched as one man’s eyes wandered around the room…he had survived the earthquake and the tsunami, and now a few months later, was possibly facing death as the result of a car accident. I felt absolutely powerless to do anything…then I noticed the blood all over the floor - and my bare feet.”

Despite some of the grim realities, Sanders says her experience in Banda Aceh, particularly with the children, was enormously rewarding. “I had a great experience with some kids just outside of Banda who had fled with their families after the tsunami. A program called ‘The Source’ handed out food and sang and played games with children in outlying communities and camps. The kids joined in, and sang loudly - it was wonderful.”

But despite some of the grim realities, Sanders says her experience in Banda Aceh, particularly with the children, was enormously rewarding.

“I had a great experience with some kids just outside of Banda who had fled with their families after the tsunami. A program called ‘The Source’ handed out food and sang and played games with children in outlying communities and camps. The kids joined in, and sang loudly - it was wonderful.”

Remarkably, Sanders says that ‘happiness’ appears to be a widespread sentiment in the tsunami-torn region.

“In fact, all the people were smiling and happy throughout Banda Aceh. I did not see a person grumpy or stressed or rude: something you see everyday in Australia - and we have never experienced such wide-scale devastation,” she observes. “Of course, underneath there is a lot of hurt, and memories that will stay with them a long time. But is not hard to love these people - they are loving, friendly, hospitable and accommodating.”

Fundamentally, this is the reason that both motivates and inspires Jessica Sanders in her work with ‘Bless Indonesia Today’. 

“I don’t find it hard to have a vision for the people of Indonesia…and plan to devote a large part of my life to these people. Coming from Australia - a land of plenty - I know that there are things we can share (but) I’m equally aware that many Australians can learn from their happiness, respect and contentedness.”

For a young Australian woman, it’s a dream come true.