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Wednesday 20 November 2019
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Tim Stew’s passion for service

Falklands War sets 16-year-old on career in diplomacy

British High Commissioner Tim Stew has served in six countries, including TT.
British High Commissioner Tim Stew has served in six countries, including TT.

The human experience has so many things that make a life. From growing up in the United Kingdom to living in TT with his children, British High Commissioner Tim Stew, over glasses of fruit juice at his residence, shares bits of his life. He touches on both his personal and professional journeys and how each affects the other.

Beginning at the beginning, as it were, Stew went back to age 16. "As a teenager, my world revolved around me, my family, friends, school and girls. I didn't think much beyond that. But there was an event in 1982 when I was 16, which put me on the path to diplomacy."

He explained having been an excited teen because he found himself on a training course run by the British army where he learned how to parachute. "I thought it was going to be amazing, I could have thought of nothing better than jumping out at planes at that age." Toward the end of the course, he said the soldiers with whom he trained packed up and left within a couple of hours, which turned out to have been as a result of Argentina invading the Falkland Islands, which was a British territory. "The prime minister had said, 'We are not going to stand for this and if necessary we are going to go into conflict.' Which of course is what happened."

High Commissioner Tim Stew MBE raises the rainbow flag on International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia & Transphobia 2019 at the British High Commission, St Clair.
Photo courtesy British High Commission

The Falkland Islands is an archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean. After the invasion by Argentina, British administration was restored two months later, after the Falklands War.

"I think that event sort of rudely intruded into my life in a way that made me more conscious of the international world. As the pictures of that conflict were beamed into our homes via TV, I saw young soldiers putting their lives on the line, losing their lives, being injured and so on."

These included friends he would have just made during the course, leading him to think, "How did we get ourselves in this kind of conflict thousands of miles from home?" This further ignited the spark of interest in international relations.

British High Commissioner Tim Stew chats with a friend during a lime at BP Renegades panyard in Port of Spain in 2017. PHOTO BY JOAN RAMPERSAD

It was not long before Stew headed to study at the University of Liverpool, in the north of England, after which he served in the UK foreign and commonwealth office. Since then, Stew has been serving as a diplomat, living in six countries including TT.

"I've lived in Egypt twice, I lived in Saudi Arabia, which was my first overseas posting. And then I went from there to Bosnia, during the conflict in Saudi Arabia to set up our embassy there. Then after that, to Belize which brought me into this region, then home for a while, then back to Egypt, then Kuwait, then back home, then here in TT."

While living in England, Stew served in a regional position, covering countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa during the Arab revolution. This contributed to the additional number of countries he visited which would have impacted his outlook on life.

Asked how visiting these countries and meeting the vast number of people and their cultures had an impact on his outlook on life, Stew said he had a number of memorable experiences.

"I think the overall experience has been extraordinary, I've never regretted it." He made a number of sacrifices with family and friends, he said, but having the experience of being integrated and learning new cultures made it worth the while. "You walk into a place and you try to understand quickly, what is going on. There are things that may strike you as unusual, like 'Why do people do this, this way in this country?'"

This constant fascination and sense of renewal every three to four years have kept him excited in his profession. He said the experience has made him see the value of listening more. Listening, he said, allows for an even deeper understanding of the reality of others.

"A really formative experience was during my time in Bosnia during the last eight months of a conflict." This conflict which took place between 1992 and 1995 was ethnically rooted in Bosnia and Herzegovina – a former republic of Yugoslavia with a multi-ethnic population comprising Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Serbs, and Croats.

From left, Thai national Sombat Meleha Wong; Honorary Consul to the Thai Kingdom, Joan Wilson; Chargé d’Affaires at the US Embassy, John McIntyre; Australian High Commissioner to TT John Pilbeam and British High Commissioner to TT Tim Stew light candles at the Thai Consulate in Belmont in this 2018 file photo.

"That was an extraordinary time." Living in a besieged city which was being shot at every day, he saw a number of his friends being killed, and had a lot of close escapes from death himself. This period is one which Stew said allowed him to see an extraordinary side of the human spirit.

"That desire to survive at any cost. To keep going, to keep a sense of national pride while delivering to help their countrymen as we built the embassy, it left me thinking I have to make the most of every day of my life."

Asked if he noticed any single theme of thread running throughout all the places he visited, Stew laughed before saying what jumped out more were the differences. "I think it comes back to the point of the human spirit. I have seen people in difficult circumstances. And in some countries where there is great disparity with those who have wealth and those who don't. But you see that human spirit that says, 'We are going to get on, and we are going to survive.'"

Stew said among the things that have inspired him during his career is the energy and audacity of the youth of TT. "The inspiration that the youth of this country drive – a lot of them are determined to make their country better and shape their world in a way they want to see it. I draw quite a lot of strength and inspiration from their dedication. I have met a bunch of extremely talented young people in this country who are keeping themselves extremely busy pushing on a number of fronts, setting up NGOs or working in different ways...to drive a bit of change."

The father of two said he wondered in the past if moving from country to country may have been the best thing for his children. "My daughter just graduated and my son has another year left in university, so they are almost through with education."

He said his children, during their years of schooling, would have attended between ten and 12 schools, having not lived in any one place for more than a few years.

They expressed to him, however, that they have valued the wider education they received while living in vastly different spaces.

"The wider education is an education in life. What they probably found most culturally difficult was going back to the UK and attending school there for a number of years. They got used to being in schools where people come and go all the time, and you make friends, and you make the most of today – and you end up with a group of friends across the world."

He said it was the diversity they experienced while moving which contributed a wealth of knowledge and extraordinary experiences. From camping in the western deserts in Egypt, seeing the pyramids, or going DDI (down 'd islands) here or across to Tobago for diving, he believes these were all amazing experiences for them to have had in their youth.

Stew laughed before saying he enjoys everything about being high commissioner to TT. "TT has been one of my favourite postings because of the diversity and the richness of culture, the wildlife, the people – and there is always something happening."

He remains busy in his role, working on a number of programmes while enjoying the energy of the people of TT.

Asked what advice he would give to a young man who seeks to be as close as possible to the definition of a well-rounded man, Stew said it can be challenging depending on the immediate environment surrounding the person.

"My advice would be, to be different. Go and get different perspectives. Go and talk to people who are outside your immediate group and your immediate area." This, he said, would be much like his earliest interaction with the outside world affecting life as he knew it when he was 16. "Sometimes those things happen and make a change in you. Sometimes you have to go out and try to find that change for yourself."

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