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Love of Learning

Meet Robert Thoen: University in the Community Student and Citizen of the World

By JOANNE MACKAY-BENNETT - September 20 2019
Meet  Robert Thoen: University in the Community Student and Citizen of the World

Readers of Learning Curves will recognize the name of the WEA initiative called University in the Community.  But if you have never been a participant in our program, you may have wondered who attends our free-of-charge, 10-week sessions held at Innis College during both fall and winter terms. 

I met with Robert Thoen, a current UitC student, in the café at the Royal Conservatory of Music. After having had to put his educational goals aside, he, like many of his fellow UitC students, returned to the classroom to pursue his passion for learning.  I came away from our interview with the clear sense that it is his singular love of learning – about the world, about people, and about ideas – that forms the bedrock of a life of unceasing curiosity and exceptional kindness. 

To even begin to know who Robert Thoen is, you must first start with a map of the world in front of you. Go to the southwest portion of the Pacific Ocean. Find the island of Borneo. Look for Kalimantan, the large part of the island that is under the political jurisdiction of Indonesia. Locate the province of South Kalimantan. In the southeast section of South Kalimantan, find the port city of Bandjermasin.

There, on June 7, 1939, Robert Thoen (Dutch: ‘t Hoen) was born into a biracial family. His father was Dutch and was employed by Shell, a large Dutch company with colonial ties in what was then called the Dutch East Indies. His mother was Dutch – Indonesian.  Robert was their first child. 

Born just weeks away from the onset of World War II, the full force of the war’s horror did not strike Robert and his family until 1942 when the Japanese invaded and occupied Indonesia. While on holidays in Soerabaja on East Java, his father was interned and sent to a camp in Thailand as a POW. What followed was an event that abruptly turned his middle-class childhood upside down: Robert, just three years old, his mother, and his baby sister fled to Semarang, Java, to his mother’s parents. From there, they were interned in a Japanese concentration camp.  

Robert’s memories of their incarceration remain vivid. He describes the approximate dimensions of the corner of a house where they endured three, long years by pointing to a tiny corner of the room where we were meeting, a space so small that it was unimaginable to me how his mother managed to protect her two toddlers from physical and emotional harm.

Unable to understand at such a young age where his father had gone, Robert would learn later that when he, his mother and his sister fled to Semarang, his father was taken prisoner and sent to Thailand. There, along with thousands of POW’s and civilian prisoners, he became part of the human labour force tasked with building a railway between Burma (aka Myanmar) and China.  This was the time and the region where the story of the well-known film, Bridge Over the River Kwai, took place.  Needless to say, the Hollywood re-telling comes nowhere near a true portrayal of the horrific privation and suffering of the prisoners of war.  

In August, 1945, after the Allies and Japan signed an agreement to end the war in the Pacific, the POWs were released and Robert’s father headed south to Bangkok. Robert, his mother, and his sister boarded a Red Cross boat going to Bangkok where they were finally reunited as a family with the husband and father whom they had not seen for three years. From Bangkok, the t’Hoen family set sail for the Netherlands, via the Suez Canal, where they started a new life.

Having known Robert as a student in UitC for several years, I try to fit the biographical details of his earlier life with the extroverted man I meet each week in our class.  I wonder how it is that the upheaval and sadness that lies deep in his childhood has transmuted into a life of extraordinary openness to the world.  For some, the losses suffered because of war would have turned them inward to the safety of a more conventional and private life.

What, I wonder, turned Robert’s sights outward? As a young adult, he chose a career working in telecommunications that took him to postings all over the world.  Among his many adopted homes, he singles out four countries in particular: Indonesia, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, and Canada.  His formal schooling began in the Netherlands in 1946. Did his formative years, where pre-school “educational outcomes” were based not on the three “R’s” but on survival, open his eyes to larger, borderless landscapes of human nature?

I wonder, too, if the experience of being an outsider in other cultures became somehow familiar to him.  What I do know is that Robert learned to appreciate and value the richness of other lives, other ways of being.  Always profoundly interested in the lives of ordinary people, their culture, their history, and their human experiences, he has drawn his own map of human-to-human connections that form his lineage of extended kinship.  

His natural ability to connect with people and ideas became a life of engaging with others. On any given day, that could mean being actively involved with issues of social justice, educating himself about the rights of Canada’s indigenous peoples, volunteering at a weekly, drop-in café, or being a trusted friend and advocate for refugees living in Toronto. 

 He is also a volunteer Board Member of the “August 15, 1945 Foundation” where Dutch and Indonesian survivors of the War in the Pacific gather three times a year to support each other and enjoy a marvellous Indonesian luncheon. (Note: The War in the Pacific ended on August 15, 1945 whereas the War in Europe had ended May 5, 1945. 2020 will mark the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII in Europe and the Pacific.)

When I ask Robert what motivates him to connect with others, he responds instantly that it is because he has been an immigrant that he notices the needs of others.  

That Robert should arrive, and stay, in Toronto, has been both fortunate and fitting.  In a stroke of good luck, while volunteering on Barbara Hall’s mayoral campaign, he met Nenke; they have been together ever since.  Chatting with Robert, with Nenke close by, it is obvious that their mutually-supportive partnership has been a vital source of strength for both of them.  

Robert is one of 35 students in UitC whose interest and participation makes our program, and our city, stronger.  Email us at: We look forward to hearing from you! 

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