Irreverent, stubborn, provocative. With a story out of a movie and his disruptive political style, this young Muslim Somali refugee, an activist turned Lord Mayor in the space of a few years, has now made it to Brussels. His slogan? "Immigrants make Britain great".
Magid Magid, is 29 years old. He arrived in the UK from Somalia with his siblings and his mother in 1994 when he was only five years old. They were fleeing from the armed conflict. They didn’t know the United Kingdom. They didn’t speak English and they had to start over. He grew up in Burngreave, Sheffield’s melting pot. Stubborn and resilient, Magid learnt to speak English with a strong Yorkshire accent, he finished school and he graduated in aquatic zoology from the University of Hull. A keen environmentalist, he decided to get into politics to counteract the rise of the alt-right and of Nigel Farage’s UKIP in his region.
Dubbed ‘Magic Magid’, since 2016, Magid Magid has managed to capture people’s imagination. First elected as Councillor with the Greens in 2016, he became Lord Mayor of Sheffield in 2018. He was the first Muslim Somali refugee to become Lord Mayor and the youngest ever. His unconventional political style has often made the headlines.
He broke with tradition by playing the Imperial March from Star Wars at his inauguration ceremony. He posed for his official portrait wearing the golden mayoral medallion over a white jeans jacket, his trademark yellow cap and his Dr. Martens. When the US president Donald Trump visited Great Britain in 2018, he ‘banned’ him from Sheffield.
And finally, he recently appointed the rapper Otis Mensah as Sheffield’s poet laureate. But there’s more to ‘Magic Magid’ than that. With a simple message like “Stand up to hate” and a political campaign in support of immigration, he won the hearts and minds of his fellow citizens who elected him to represent them in Brussels. And before setting off, he wrote a love letter to Sheffield – published on his website – in which he says: “Though I am not originally from Sheffield, I am of it. It has made me who I am…Sheffield is and will always be my home.”
Magid Magid, we can say that you’ve achieved a lot since 2014. But let’s start from the beginning: how did you arrive in the United Kingdom?
«I left Somaliland, in Somalia, with my family and we arrived in Sheffield in 1994. I was five years old. None of us could speak English.
No one ever chooses to leave their home, or the country they were born in, lightly. We had to leave because of the armed conflict in Somalia and we sought refuge in the UK».
What was it like to grow up in Sheffield for a child coming from Somalia?
«My mother brought us up on her own. She didn’t speak any English. We had to translate for her with the neighbours, the authorities, we helped her to fill in the forms and so on. Language was not an issue for me. I was little, I learnt to speak English playing with my mates in the school playground and I quickly settled in».
What has changed since then?
I feel like we’ve gone backwards and turned inwards over the past few years. Politicians like Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and others have been using xenophobic, and often openly racist, language normalising it.
«For example, hate crimes went up following the EU referendum. At the same time, however, I’ve witnessed a social and political reawakening in Sheffield. Many people have reacted by standing up against this social malaise, this growing resentment towards ‘the other’».
Is that what you did? Why did you get into politics?
«Yes. Five years ago, in the run up to the European elections, I decided to do something. I couldn’t stand watching Nigel Farage and the alt-right politicians gaining such support in Sheffield and across the country. So, I thought that perhaps I could do something to help stop this wave of hatred and intolerance sweeping the country. Actually, I knew nothing about politics. I didn’t even know the difference between left and right. But I started to read up, watch videos and get ‘politicised’. I joined the Green Party because it was the one that most reflected what I believed in. I was an activist in the Party from 2014 to 2016, when I was elected to the Council».
You have quite a unique, spontaneous and direct approach to politics. Why do you think that works to reach out to people?
People are tired of being told the same things. I’ve learned that although they may not remember what you tell them, they will always remember how you’ve made them feel. But it’s hard to grab people’s attention in order to make yourself heard above all the noise. You need to stand out, be eye-catching. This is what I try to do.
«Some have criticised me for my unorthodox ways. But I want to be accessible, approachable, down to earth. That’s who I am».
At a time when the United Kingdom is so divided and tormented, you have dared to go against the tide with a provocative pro-immigration message such as: “immigrants make Britain great” printed on a t-shirt, which has become your trademark. Why did you do it?
«That’s true. I wore that t-shirt for the whole campaign. Or rather, I had several made – all with the same message – I didn’t always wear the same one! Getting that message across was very important for me. It was central to my campaign and I strongly believe in it. We often just complain about everything we don’t like. I am different. I wanted to convey a positive message. A message of hope. I want to inspire those who listen to me, I want them to dream. It’s true that not everyone took it well and I was insulted at times».
And what did you do then?
«Not everyone can always agree with me, that’s normal. But that didn’t intimidate me. It’s important to talk to those who don’t share our views. These conversations are not easy, but they help us understand why some people think the way they do and where their deep-set sense of unease comes from. We need to change the way we do politics. We must listen to what everyone has to say in order to leave no one behind».
Another irreverent message you used in your campaign was: “Be kind, don’t be a pr**k”. How did you come up with that?
«This was the first of ten ‘comandments’, I came up with on occasion of a music festival in Sheffield. It was meant for a young audience. I wanted to get the message across as directly as possible. Far too often nowadays, we forget to treat each other with kindness and we behave badly, like pricks, towards others. This message follows the red thread of my optimist narrative».
You have openly challenged nationalist politicians such as Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini. Is there anything you would like to tell Matteo Salvini?
I would like to tell Matteo Salvini that it is unacceptable for him to keep sowing intolerance, hatred and division with his demagogy. We will not allow for our communities to be divided by politics such as his and for him to scapegoat migrants and refugees. What Salvini is doing to migrants in Italy is despicable and must stop.
Is there something you wish to say to the Italian people?
«Italians, you are wonderful people. You have a better story to tell. A story that makes you who you are. Don’t be fooled by Matteo Salvini. Stand up to hatred with hope. I plan to visit Italy this Summer and I’m really looking forward to it!»