Between Two Homes East Timor's leaders are urging exiles to return. But some who sought refuge in Australia don't want to go

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Plenty of teenagers worry about what they will do when they leave school. Erna Lay worries more about where she will be. The 15-year-old worries so much, says elder sister Ervina, that she can barely concentrate on her schoolwork. Three generations of Ervina's family-grandparents, parents, and she and her siblings-have lived with this uncertainty for seven years, ever since they fled to Australia from political strife in East Timor. Like Ervina and her brother Elvis, Erna, who arrived as an eight-year-old, feels Australian. There are no other Timorese families in their western Melbourne suburb and she's forgotten the Tetum language of her birthplace. "She keeps asking, îIf I go back, what would I do there?'," says Ervina. "It's really sad for me to see her like that."

The Lay family left Timor because of their involvement in the resistance against Indonesian military occupation. Abandoning everything but the suitcases they carried, they arrived in Australia on tourist visas. During the 24-year occupation of their small half-island, thousands of other East Timorese made the same desperate trip. Today about 1,650 of them-most of whom arrived in the wake of the Nov. 1991 massacre at Dili's Santa Cruz cemetery-are still awaiting an official decision on their claim for asylum. When Federal Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said just after Christmas that East Timor is now safe enough for people to return to, the East Timorese panicked. Though Ruddock says no decision has been made on their fate, some of the asylum seekers fear the government is preparing them for bad news. After all this time, it's an appalling prospect, says 27-year-old Dani Guterres, who arrived alone in Melbourne in 1994: "I have survived and I have a life here. If I go back, everything is zero again."

The claims of most of the East Timorese asylum seekers remain with the Department of Immigration, which suspended assessments in the mid-1990s while legal appeals on a handful of the claims took their course. The Australian government argued that East Timorese were not entitled to refugee status because they had citizenship rights in Portugal, the territory's former colonial ruler. In 1998 the Federal Court rejected that argument, and a tribunal ruling in late 2000 reached a similar conclusion. Ruddock's office says the department is now processing the cases as they do all other refugee applications. But David Manne, coordinator of Victoria's Refugee & Immigration Legal Centre, says there's been little sign of resolution. "These people have been struggling to get a decision made on their cases," he says, "even though they had fled from the most serious sort of human rights abuses."

While they were waiting, the East Timorese started new lives. They have not been in detention centers but in the community: working, learning English, making friends, going to school, having children. Some young asylum seekers, like Francisca de Oliveira, have had to get along without their parents. Sent away because of threats by Indonesian soldiers, de Oliveira-along with her brother, sister and uncle-arrived in Australia on a tourist visa in 1995. Now 23, she is about to begin her final year studying nursing on a scholarship at Sydney's Australian Catholic University. "I miss Timor," she says, "but I have a different life here now. All my friends are here."

As East Timor prepares for formal independence in May, its leaders have been urging the new country's people to return and rebuild. For many, that invitation could not come quickly enough. Thousands of exiles have returned. But not all of them still think of East Timor as home. "We have nothing left in East Timor," says 68-year-old Seu Nam Lie, who has been seeking refugee status since he arrived in Melbourne in 1989. "No family, no property, nothing." Some asylum seekers say they still fear for their safety if they return. Others say the memory of past horrors makes the thought of returning unbearable. "A lot of people would never feel safe there," says Li Haim Lai, chairman of the Timor Ethnic Chinese Community in Victoria. "Women were raped there, and you can't just erase that-those things stay with you forever."

Others, like de Oliveira, see themselves living in Timor again-but not right now. "Of course we want to go back," she says. "But we're not ready, not yet. At least let us finish our education first. Otherwise, what would we do back in Timor?" Like many East Timorese who arrived in Australia as children or teenagers, she has fading memories of her homeland. Some families have lost touch with relatives there. To many, says Ervina Lay, Australia has become much more than a temporary haven. "If I went back, it would be like an Australian going to East Timor," she says. "It's just that I have an East Timorese background." Ervina is the only member of her family so far to have been granted a permanent residency visa. "I feel like a heavy weight has been lifted from me, but it comes back when I think about my family," she says. Her parents don't like sharing their fears with their children, but Ervina knows that while "physically they would be O.K., mentally it would be very disturbing for them to go back. They remember the old violence. There are still scars."

Despite the arrival of peace and democracy in East Timor, advocates for the asylum seekers in Australia believe there are "other extenuating circumstances in their case," says Sister Josephine Mitchell, of Sydney's Mary MacKillop Institute of East Timorese Studies. She argues that Australia's long relationship with East Timor gives it special responsibilities toward its tiny neighbor. And while progress in East Timor has made some of the claims for refugee status less compelling, says David Manne, the government still has the power to grant visas on humanitarian grounds. For some, says Manne, whose center is pushing for a special permanent visa category for the East Timorese asylum seekers, going back "could well cause irreparable damage to their family unit."

Among the asylum seekers, there is a strong desire to be a part of East Timor's reconstruction. Ervina Lay's 17-year-old brother Elvis hopes one day to work in the country's fledgling education system. But he wants to do it from Australia, as an Australian. Francisca de Oliveira wants to finish studying and work in Australia for a year or two before returning to her parents in Timor. That has been her plan, though now she feels that planning is futile. "They have to decide what they want to do with us," she says. "At least tell us something so we can work out what we're going to do with our lives." n