During her trip to London earlier this year, Diplomat talks with the First Lady of Belize, Kim Simplis Barrow, about her role as a Special Envoy, cancer, comparisons with Michelle Obama,
and her husband, Dean Barrow, who was elected Prime Minister in 2008
1. What has been your mission in London? Has there been anything particularly interesting or surprising you have found about your trip?
I’m in London to organise a fundraiser for the Belize Children’s Trust. In my capacity as Belize’s Special Envoy for Women and Children, I have dedicated myself to ensuring that the children of my country have every opportunity to be healthy. I believe that when we take care of our children we take care of our present and our future. That is why I initiated the design, construction, equipment and staffing of the first Paediatric Intensive Care Unit in Belize. While I am involved in other projects such as the Inspiration Centre for children with disabilities, and also the construction of a Cancer Centre in Belize, the specific fundraising event which I organised in London in June was for the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit at Belize’s national referral hospital. I have been amazed by how many people have been willing to lend support and, indeed, how many people love and want to help Belize.
2. Can you tell me a little about your childhood and upbringing?
My beginnings were humble but very happy. With six siblings, I always say that we didn’t have much when it came to material wealth, but love was certainly abundant. My father was a police officer who taught us to lead by example, and we were always aware of the core values of honesty and integrity. We were taught the importance of education, and I was fortunate to win a scholarship to study in Mexico, majoring in Tourism. I later studied in Florida, obtaining two Master’s degrees in Tourism and International Business.
3. In brief, can you talk about forging your own career path before marrying your husband? How do you believe these experiences assist you in your role as Belize’s First Lady?
I met my husband when he was practicing Law; he was also Leader of the Opposition at the time. I was Executive Director of the Belize Tourism Industry Association. I’ve always felt that it was important for me to develop my own career away from the life of Belizean Politics. I was always looking for ways to improve myself and the community where I lived.
After obtaining my Master’s degrees, I became properly aware of the need to help disadvantaged children, and so in 2006 I founded the Lifeline Foundation. Lifeline’s main objective is to provide aid to malnourished children and children orphaned by HIV/AIDS in Belize by supplying food, medical care and educational materials.
The experience of having a career in tourism and my philanthropic work has actually helped me in my role as the Prime Minister’s wife. I knew that I could not be the kind of First Lady that would just attend official functions and entertain, and I realised that I could advance the causes for women and children in a much more public way. My privileged position allows me to attract awareness and resources to address the issues affecting women and children, as well as promoting Belize when I represent it abroad. It is satisfying to know that through my efforts and the government’s efforts we have been able to change government policy and pass legislation to offer further protection to women and children.
4. How does it feel to be described as Central America’s answer to Michelle Obama?
Although some Belizean women were unhappy with this label, because they view me as a person in my own right and Belize as its own country, I was honoured and humbled because I myself have great admiration for Michelle Obama. As wives of the first black men to become leaders in our two nations, I know that there are key similarities to our lives. Mrs Obama has dedicated her term as US First Lady to fighting many of the same causes that I do in Belize. As the US is the most powerful country in the world, my hope is that this comparison allows more people to read about Belize and the kind of work I am trying to do.
5. Having spent a great deal of 2012 fighting cancer, what are your main plans and priorities for 2013 and beyond? What advice can you offer others struggling with life-threatening illness?
My cancer journey began on 22 October 2011, when I felt a lump during an official trip abroad. Just ten short days later, I heard the devastating words: ‘you have cancer.’ I was 39 years old, and this disease claimed my life for an entire year. For the next five years I’ll be on medication for the cancer and the heart complications that followed. It has zapped me of my energy, my good health, and my time… but not my LIFE!
It may seem strange, but cancer has given me my greatest gift: it has reminded me of the fragility of life; that we all need to live every day to its fullest. This disease has taught me how to cope with fear; strengthened my faith in God; has emboldened my spirit and restored my faith in humanity. I now know that the only day that really matters is today!
This year, I plan to raise enough funds to see the beginning of the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit and inauguration of the Inspiration Centre. I have just started a project to see the construction of the First Cancer Centre in Belize. I will continue to lobby for change in legislation to protect our children further from sexual predators and to advocate women empowerment.
To those people who are struggling with life-threatening illnesses, I say focus on yourself and make sure to eat well, continue your exercise when you can, remember to say your prayers and be thankful for every small step you take towards recovery. To those who are battling cancer, I say: cancer does not have a brain, or a heart, or a spirit. It is us and the doctors who have the brain and the ability to strategise its demise. And we fight not just with our brain, but with our heart and soul. I have my battle plan and every day I attack and choose to fight cancer! Keep fighting, keep the faith and always remain hopeful!
6. Can you tell me a little bit about your work as Special Envoy for Women and Children?
As Special Envoy, I am tasked with being the voice for children and women, advocating and mobilising resources for the improvement of services for their care, protection and development. At the moment, the office and I are focused on several other projects aside from the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit, the Cancer Centre and the Inspiration Centre. These are:
• Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) awareness. We have circulated a booklet targeting six- to 10-year-old children, which is essentially a teaching tool to empower children to know what kind of contact is inappropriate and how to react.
• Project Smile, seeking to raise funds to provide dental care to disadvantaged women on the south side of Belize.
• A Community-Based Approach to Reducing Violence Against Women in the Stann Creek District.
• Organic Gardens in Schools and Women’s Group, to expose children and mothers to backyard gardening methods with the aim to promote healthy eating.
• A Financial Literacy Campaign, which is a project in collaboration with commercial banks to develop a culture of saving among children at an early age.
7. What do you think is Belize’s greatest diplomatic challenge?
The first thing that comes to mind is Belize’s territorial dispute with its neighbour, Guatemala, and the path to a definitive solution. Belize has recently launched its Public Education campaign with regard to the referendum, which will decide if the issue will be taken to the International Court of Justice for final resolution. The dispute is a challenge because it has slowed down the process of complete Central American integration. Central America cannot speak of full integration until Belize is fully part of that integration system.
8. What do you think has been the most memorable day or event of your life to date? (Good or bad.)
The most memorable day in my life was when I welcomed my daughter Salima into this world. She has brought so much purpose to my life, giving me the strength to fight when things did not look so good. The day that I found out that I had cancer was perhaps the worst day of my life, because I knew that it would disrupt the work that I had been doing and would affect my family.
I must say that the support and love of my husband and daughter made the fight so much easier. Once I had completed my first round of chemotherapy, and my hair was falling out, I decided that I would just shave off the hair. (I had bought a wig to wear in case my going bald would affect my daughter and husband.) I needn’t have been concerned: he looked at me and said, ‘you look great – you don’t need a wig,’ and when I showed Salima, she just gave me the thumbs up. From that day on I never wore a scarf or wig again.