DILI, Timor-Leste - Just one day after Cyclone Seroja hit Dili in April, killing 41 and displacing 4,022, members of the LGBTI community and a joint force from local non-governmental organization Arcoiris set up a community kitchen to provide food and drinking water to more than a thousand people in their neighbourhood of Bidau, in the east of the capital. As the torrential rain swept away belongings and houses, the spirit of solidarity remained firm, as food, clean water, women’s hygiene kits, and essential household goods were supplied to more than 200 families, including material to rebuild houses.

Once the community were aware of the kitchen, several local women volunteered to help using the available food stock in the Arcoiris centre until more supplies arrived.

"Once the food was ready, more than 100 people covered in mud came with containers to collect meals for their family,” said Azu a frontline staff member of Arcoiris. Due to the increasing number of people arriving in need of food and other essentials, the kitchen extended their initial one-week service plan to more than two weeks to help families rebuilding and recovering.

"We are happy that our sense of solidarity is seen as we help the community... This act of love is bigger than anything else." - Azu, Arcoiris staff member

This kitchen had also been set up after the March 2020 flood with support from private donors. It distributed food essentials to the LGBTI community supported by Plan International and Outright LGBTI Emergency Action Fund.

Having survived this year’s cyclone, more than 20 LGBTI members quickly organized to support the community, despite being among the affected. According to Azu, many volunteers had to walk great distances to reach the community kitchen. “With no public transportation available, we had to walk here early in the morning and walk back home in the night,” Azu said. “On some occasions, some friends with bikes offered to take us back home, and Plan International provided a motorbike.”

For two weeks, these LGBTI members focused on all aspects of running the kitchen, from building it to collecting supplies, distributing materials, while at the same time helping to rebuild some houses. “[We] are a bit tired now and there is still a lot on the list to be done,” Azu said. A month has passed since the cyclone hit Dili; however, many other organizations are still working at the 17 evacuation centres still open and hosting the displaced people.

Regardless of the ongoing discrimination towards the LGBTI community in the country, these members continue embracing their act of humanity and building a stronger team to serve those in need.

“With big hearts, we are happy that our sense of solidarity is seen as we help the community,” said Azu. “This act of love is bigger than anything else. From all these activities, we would also like to tell the community that we will continue to contribute to the community, and this can only get stronger if we are also respected.”

Azu and his colleagues observed some positive changes in the community's attitudes towards them. “Now when we pass by and greet the neighbours, they respond and smile at us, while some even greet us first and call us by our names. Before, you’d never expect this,” said Azu. Two colleagues, Joker and Lula, agreed.

Discrimination and non-acceptance from some families and communities has led to many LGBTI people visiting the Arcoiris centre as they found it a safe space. The Arcoiris centre has been offering them work experience and capacity-building opportunities within the centre and through their partnerships.

“The support from Arcoiris has eased our family’s burden a lot and it truly shows that we are not alone.” - Ameta, 24

In the wake of the cyclone and the emotional turmoil and despair brought on by displacement, Arcoiris members realized that food and sleeping materials were what was really needed. They carried out assessments to understand the magnitude of the destruction, updating each other about households that had not received any support.

The community kitchen is now closed, but their work is still ongoing. “We are still distributing some raw materials to build houses, sharing food, and visiting vulnerable people abandoned by their families,” noted Lula. According to him, their solidarity with the community is founded on the need to support those who are hungry. He believes that every person has the potential to support because once someone has started, there will be people joining to assist. “You shouldn’t be quiet when you see people in need. Once you start to speak up, listen to them and put it to action, it becomes powerful.” Since the community kitchen commenced, it has received support from individuals, agencies, private-sector companies, and diplomatic missions.

Ameta, 24, whose house was destroyed by the flood, expressed his sincere gratitude for the support to his three siblings and mother. “The support from Arcoiris has eased our family’s burden a lot and it truly shows that we are not alone.”

Under the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative, UN Women is working alongside Arcoiris and another organization, CODIVA, to provide more accessible assistance for survivors of gender-based violence, and to ensure such assistance reinforces the rights of women and girls, embracing their sexual orientation and gender identity. This further reinforces the efforts of CODIVA and Arcoiris with their partners to reduce discrimination against members of LGBTI and to create accessible support available to all, ensuring that no one is left behind.

In Timor-Leste, the barriers to ending violence against women and girls are high. At family level, women and girls often face discrimination based on their gender and sexual orientation. “I’m hoping that in the upcoming government response for the flood and recovery efforts, the LGBTI community won’t be excluded,” said Azu. “We believe that [discrimination] is still happening because many people still don’t understand and still do not embrace our existence.”

Learning from the recent act of solidarity from community to community, these Arcoiris members stated that it is critical to save and support others in times of crisis, setting aside their differences. They emphasised that some support could be offered just by their presence alone and that it does not always require money.

By Silvio Bernardo. First published on UN Women Asia and the Pacific.