Meet Sheffield’s new mayor, the black, Muslim, former refugee whose viral inauguration photo charmed the world: ‘I’ll be doing things differently'

Councillor Magid Magid reveals the story behind that image - and whether he plans to stand for MP... or join a samba band

Colin Drury
Tuesday 22 May 2018 12:45 BST
Sheffield's New Lord Mayor Magid Magid sworn in

When I’m ushered into his parlour, the new Lord Mayor of Sheffield is sat with his feet on his desk, firing off emails about creating a post of Sheffield Poet Laureate.

Despite the rarified surroundings – mahogany furniture, upholstered sofas, fine china teacups – he swears like a Yorkshire trooper and laughs infectiously. He is still wearing his Dr Martens and his ceremonial chain.

“It’s a good accessory,” he smiles.

Asked how he feels about the global reaction to his now famous official inauguration photo, Councillor Magid Magid’s response is as unorthodox as the image itself.

“Mate… f*****g hell…” he tells The Independent, still apparently struggling for words. “It’s been surreal. Mad. I wasn’t expecting any of this.”

Councillor Magid Magid, in his now famous pose after inauguration as Sheffield's Lord Mayor

The 28-year-old’s election as the South Yorkshire city’s official first citizen last week made headlines around the world. He has received messages of goodwill from people as far and wide as New York and Syria. ITV News anchor Charlene White declared on Twitter that she might be “a little bit in love”.

This is partly because of who he is and what he’s achieved. Councillor Magid is not only the city’s youngest ever lord mayor – and the first from the Green Party – he is also a Muslim former Somalian refugee who arrived in the UK at the age of five, unable to speak English.

And it is partly because of that picture. In it, amid the shadowy, gilded confines of Sheffield’s Victorian Town Hall, he squats – complete with ceremonial chain, Dr Martens boots and wide-eyed smile – high on a balustrade.

‘If me doing this – as a black, Muslim immigrant – can spark someone to go out and change their bit of the world, that’s my job done’

“I’ve no idea why I got up there, mate,” he says. “It wasn’t planned. It was just me being myself. There’ve been [121] lord mayors before and I respect them all but I wanted to show I’ll be doing things differently. It just came out of that. I wanted to say this town belongs to all of us.”

That Councillor Magid – who once appeared on Channel 4 reality show Hunted – is different there is no doubt.

He was elected here after being nominated by his three Green Party council colleagues. When I later ask one, Alison Teal, why they put him forward, her response is simple. “He’s charming and magnetic,” she says. “I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like him. He’s a born lord mayor.”

The main message he wants to get across during his year in post is one of inspiring others.

“If me doing this – as a black, Muslim immigrant – can spark someone to go out and change their bit of the world, that’s my job done,” he says. “That, and to get people talking about Sheffield, about what a brilliant, diverse city it is.”

At his inauguration, he entered the chamber to Star Wars music and thanked his mum for “putting up with all my shit” growing up.

“I was a handful,” he explains today. “Typical teenager. The important thing was thanking my mum because she’s the reason I’m here, her courage and determination for a better life.”

It was his mother, Amina Deria, indeed, who took young Magid – along with his older sister Hanan Mah – out of war torn Burao in northern Somalia. After six months in an Ethiopian refugee camp, they arrived in the Burngreave area of Sheffield where she worked as a cleaner.

“To me,” he says, “it’s always been home.”

Lord Mayor of Sheffield Magid Magid

He did well enough at school and, after some time out in which he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, went to the University of Hull to study marine biology. There, he was elected president of the students’ union.

“I cared about issues but I was pretty naive about politics,” he says. “I remember a hustings, someone asked if I was going to join a picket line. I was thinking: ‘What the fuck is a picket line?’ But I gambled and said, ‘Yeah, of course I am’, and there was a round of applause.”

‘I think Liz [Queen Elizabeth] is great,’ he says. ‘F*****g amazing woman. But hereditary heads of state? Come on. It’s outdated’

Around 2015, alarmed by the rise of Ukip and anti-immigration rhetoric, he joined the Greens back in Sheffield where he was working in digital marketing. He was elected to the city council a year later.

“This rising xenophobic language affects me and my loved ones,” he explains. “There’s that expression that if you don’t do politics, politics will do you. I just felt I couldn’t sit on the sidelines and let that language go unchallenged. It legitimises racism and it needs to be tackled. I wanted my voice in the debate. Local politics was a way to do that.”

Among his main beliefs are devolved local power, free education, an end to PFI and the creation of a republic.

“I think Liz [Queen Elizabeth] is great,” he says. “F*****g amazing woman. But hereditary heads of state? Come on. It’s outdated.”

Now, as lord mayor, he will, as convention dictates, act as a city figurehead. “I had a white tie dinner last night,” he tells me. “I went to hire the suit – £120! I was saying: ‘I want to hire it, not buy it.’”

But he plans to open the role up too. He promises to go to more events involving underrepresented communities, and wants magicians and musicians to perform in council meeting intervals – as a way of encouraging more people to interact with local democracy.

Talking of which: trees. As a Green Party member, he is surprisingly consensual on Sheffield’s nationally notorious saga, which has seen the Labour authority cut down thousands of trees amid widespread protests.

“We all need to get together and find a solution,” he says. “Because everyone involved – on both sides – wants the best for the city. It’s just about how we get there.”

He speaks, I suggest, like someone who could go far in national politics. Might he become an MP?

“No, mate, no way,” he says. Then: “I don’t know, never say never… I don’t think being an MP is the only way to make a difference but I never have a plan.

“As long as I’m pushing myself and I feel I’m contributing to the betterment of society, I’m happy. This time next year who knows? I could be in a samba band. I’m just going with what happens.”

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