Cllr Habib Tejan came to Medway under difficult circumstances in 1993. Then 26 years later he became its mayor.
He tells local democracy reporter Robert Boddy about his journey, what’s changed in the 30 years he’s lived in the Towns, why he loves it, and what he hopes for its future.
Habib Tejan was born in Monrovia, Liberia, the son of a Sierra Leonean father and a Liberian mother.
He says from an early age he appreciated the benefits of a diverse and lively community.
Early on he saw how a range of cultures and views - his parents being not only of different nationalities but of different religions too, his mother being Christian and his father a muslim - could benefit a society.
However, it could bring problems too. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the political situation in Sierra Leone and Liberia was becoming more and more unstable, eventually resulting in civil wars in both countries.
This caused Habib’s family to split and, to find safety, the then 23-year-old travelled to the UK in 1993 to live with some relatives who were settled in Medway.
When he first arrived, he says, although he experienced some prejudice he also experienced great kindness.
“I felt welcomed. I arrived in the community and people opened their doors to me from day one. For the most part people were generous, kind, friendly, and supportive.
“I’ll give you an example. I worked while I was studying at college and often it would leave me very tired the next morning and I’d oversleep and be running to catch the bus to get to college.
“One morning I was running and the bus driver saw me and sped up and drove away. A policeman, I didn’t know him, I’d never met him before, stopped and said “I see you every morning trying to catch this bus. Jump in, I’ll give you a lift. But don’t tell anyone.
“He didn’t have to help me, but he chose to. The people of Medway were so welcoming to me, and it really taught me about the importance of community.”
He says this is the most valuable lesson he learned in his youth, the importance of being a part of a community which supports you when you need it, and you support when it needs it.
Habib moved to London to work in financial services, met his wife and started a family, but when he was looking for somewhere safe, with good schools and good values, for his children to grow up, Medway was the only answer.
In 2008, after being made redundant due to the global financial crisis, Habib saw the knock-back as an opportunity and started his own business.
It was in these years his political interests began to develop - saying difficulties during the financial crisis, and the governmental responses to it - frustrated him.
“I wasn’t really involved in politics, but I saw people who were better off out of work than in work,” he said. “I met people who said there’s no point getting a job because you earn more on the dole, and the system encouraged that. I thought we were destroying generations, making ourselves poorer.
“I saw us going into a recession and bailing out the banks and leaving the taxpayers, who work so hard, facing the risk of losing our homes. Then there are others, who never pay into the system, who don’t have to worry about that. I thought ‘no, we can’t support this’, and that’s what drew me to the Conservatives in 2010.”
Although the redundancy was difficult, Habib says he gained more flexibility over his time, which meant he could become more involved with the community he held so close.
He first got involved with his local Rotary club and then as a volunteer member of the local Conservative party, working with council members and candidates, offering his time, ideas, and support.
“I hadn’t been thinking about running myself, I was only interested in finding ways to give, to contribute, and through that I was asked to stand myself.
“I just received a phone call one afternoon saying that the seat for the River ward would become vacant, would I consider standing.
“I didn’t think I was quite ready because I was starting a new business, I had a young family I needed to provide for.
“I thought maybe in a few years I’d be ready, but I was persuaded to think about it a little. I spoke to my wife and family about it, and we decided together that I would stand.
“I thought this was an opportunity to get involved with the community at another level that I hadn’t been.
“It’s important to have representation from people from all walks of life. I thought I should be there, otherwise I would be letting myself down and our community.”
Habib was elected to River ward in 2015 and three years later he was made deputy mayor. A year after, he took up the role of mayor.
I asked Habib if he ever reflected on the fact he had come to Medway under difficult circumstances in 1993 and less than 30 years later he represented it as mayor.
“It was truly a privilege and an honour to hold those offices. It was emotional because I never thought I would serve in local government, I never assumed that these offices were somewhere I could rise to.
“Looking back 20, 30 years ago, it was totally different. It shows how open we are as a community, that regardless of your background, where you are from, if you work hard and give you get an opportunity to serve.”
In his role as mayor, Habib says there were many highlights, but a very personal one was his support for Holding On Letting Go, an organisation that supports young people who are bereaved.
He says when his younger sister died at four years old, the custom was not to discuss the death with the other children. He says it’s vital young people, especially since the Covid pandemic, are given the opportunity to talk about and process their grief.
“You think you’re protecting the kid by not talking to them, but they feel these deep emotions, they need help to cope with them. I went through what those children went through, I know they need someone to talk to.”
It is clear Habib took great pride in being mayor and representing Medway, getting the rest of the world to see what makes it so special.
But he says he gets great pleasure from trying to work out difficult issues within his ward, and the most straightforward way to find solutions is to listen to everyone involved.
“Nobody knows their area better than the people who live there, so I’ve found that when there are problems, if you just listen to people and find out what they want, what they think, you can find a solution.”
Listening is something Habib, who is married with a son and daughter, says the last administration lost sight of and this explains their poor performance in the last set of elections.
“The odds were against us with the pandemic, Ukraine, cost of living, and inflation, but we could have listened more. I think people felt we had not listened to them.
“We need to listen and we need to find out what matters to those we aspire to serve.”
“It was emotional because I never thought I would serve in local government, I never assumed that these offices were somewhere I could rise to”
Habib says the new Labour administration has been a mix of good and bad. He’s concerned about the loss of the £170 million housing infrastructure fund (HIF) and the current financial difficulties the council faces.
He believes the Labour group was too complacent while in opposition and had not prepared properly for taking control of the council.
“They had enough financial information to understand the direction the council was travelling in, but they never offered an alternative budget.
“They need to stop thinking like an opposition and start acting like an administration. No-one wants the council to go bankrupt, that’s not good for anyone.
“They haven’t been there too long and we need to give them time to settle in, but I’m very concerned.”
One of the positives of the new administration, Habib says, is their willingness to work cross-party and he commends them for making him chairman of the business support overview and scrutiny committee, where he can evaluate their performance formally.
Habib believes every administration should nominate opposition councillors to the chair of at least one committee as it.
He says it’s important to have people outside of the administration who can constructively critique their actions and provide alternatives, especially considering the Labour group is inexperienced.
And this is the key to why Habib, who now represents St Mary’s Island, thinks the Conservatives will bounce back in 2027.
He thinks the Tories have a track record of delivering as an administration, while Labour is more effective as an opposition.
“As an opposition you’re fault-finding, whereas as an administration you’re strategising and trying to find solutions for your community.
“For the past however many years, we have been strategising, coming up with plans for the future, which is much more effective than just criticising.”
I asked Habib if, when current Tory leader Adrian Gulvin steps down, he might consider running for leadership of the group, but he says it’s not the role he’s interested in right now.
Plus, he says, there is a great wealth of qualified and experienced candidates who can take up the leadership and take the group forward.
“They have to bring us together and then take us forward, so we can get back to helping our community once again.”