Somali refugee Magid Magid on overcoming Islamophobia and racism
Sheffield's first Muslim Lord Mayor: 'politics should never be joyless'
At a time when the issue of migration has polarised the UK, it’s no wonder that the image of a young Muslim, one-time refugee, crouched on the top of a stone newel in Sheffield Town Hall with a beaming smile and sturdy pair of Doc Martens was a big hit on social media.
One day before the start of Ramadan, 28-year-old Magid Magid was inaugurated as the city's Lord Mayor. As the first citizen of the city, it’s now his duty to speak on behalf of the whole community in an area of the north of England not known for a widespread acceptance of diversity. Record levels of hate crime were reported in Yorkshire following the 2016 Brexit referendum – largely fought around issues of immigration.
Mr Magid is the first ever Muslim to hold the ceremonial role, and the youngest. “It’s kind of a message of hope,” he tells The National in a crackly Bank Holiday phone call.
“When you think of a lord mayor, you tend to think of the stereotype of an older person, probably of white descent and there are a lot of people who are really excited and really looking forward to it.”
As a 5-year-old child, Mr Magid, his mother and sister (who has since spent five years living in Sharjah and Abu Dhabi) fled war in Somalia, landing in Sheffield on a rainy day, unable to speak any English. Some of his school friends ended up in prison, and he hasn’t always been accepted by the community for which he now passionately seeks to make a difference.
“No one would really say it to your face,” he said. “It would always be in passing or from a car or something like that. But I still remember the first time someone said a racist comment to me. It's quite funny, actually – someone who was driving past called me a ‘walking, talking chocolate bar’.
“And I just started completely laughing. I thought it was, like, so ridiculous and funny at the same time. It just didn't faze me.”
But Mr Magid said that he suffered less than his mother and sister. “I think women have got it much tougher than blokes,” he said. “Because women who wear headscarves visually stand out, they would get a lot [of Islamophobia].”
He also thinks Muslims in “multicultural and vibrant” London are accepted better than they are in the smaller UK towns and cities and that although things have improved, the stigma will never go away completely. “One of my friends told me the other day he changed his name [from a Muslim name to a more ‘British’-sounding one] because he was worried about getting a job and it was an issue – people seeing his name on application forms. So he changed it and he's got a job now. So there will always be those structural racisms still there."
The solution, he believes, is dialogue within communities to build mutual understanding between people from different religions and backgrounds. This passion for equality, for communication, his sense of humour and love of life makes the lord mayor endlessly likeable. He is a breath of fresh air in UK politics – already a councillor for the UK’s environmental issue Green Party in the area, he shuns the “football-like” tribalism of traditional politics. And his new-found appreciation spreads far beyond South Yorkshire, with friends sending him screenshots of his official portrait in news outlets as far away as Jordan and Turkey.
The picture sums him up, really – unconventional, and not afraid to break rules or conventions. A man who wears a T-shirt and shorts to meetings of the full council, who told us his role model was “the internet” and has “no idea” what he wants to do in the future (“as long as I'm making a difference I'll be happy.”).
“In a town hall they have a room called the ante and they've got portraits of all the lord mayors since 1824, or something,” he said of the thinking behind his portrait. “And I thought ‘this picture is going to way outdate me’ and I looked at all the others and they were so boring – literally just a headshot and that was it – and I wanted a picture that told a story and said so much more.
“Politics can be a thankless job, but it should never be a joyless job. So I'm always wanting to have fun. And just to amuse myself as much as anyone else I thought 'I'll play the Imperial March [from Star Wars] as I'm coming out'”.
Mr Magid is now determined to use his success to help get the message out there that British politics needs to diversify. “The people who represent us and speak for us are not representative of our backgrounds and society … I'd like to think that people will see me getting elected will think ‘wow, I can do that too’.
“I think it would be so selfish to be fortunate enough to get to where I am today and not be able to support and help other people from my kind of background who have the same sort of struggles as me.
“If I can empower and inspire them in any way that would be amazing. I do feel it's my duty to fight for their cause because I was them yesterday and they could be me tomorrow.”