'I had to sneak out of Pakistan to escape army – and became UK's youngest mayor'

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Nasim Ali, 54, moved to the UK with his family in 1976 (Image: Nash_Ali21/Twitter)
Nasim Ali, 54, moved to the UK with his family in 1976 (Image: Nash_Ali21/Twitter)

A Labour politician who was forced to flee his home country at the age of seven has told of his journey to becoming the UK's youngest mayor. Nasim Ali, 54, says one of his earliest memories is of his sister carrying him through the undergrowth to escape Pakistani forces during the Bangladesh Liberation War. He moved to the UK with his family in 1976, but the person meant to pick them up from the airport never arrived, leaving them to live in their cousin's basement with no running water.

Nasim told the Mirror of his struggles growing up in London, saying: "It was really tough - there was a constant fear. My brother got called the 'P' word, was spat at and chased. Local young people would chuck bottles, eggs and stones at us. We had to duck to not be seen on the way to school. As we grew older we learnt how to stand up for ourselves."

Nasim first delved into politics at the age of 15, when he occupied Camden Town Hall to demand adequate housing after a Bangladeshi family burnt to death in a bed-and-breakfast hotel in Westminster. He left school with one GCSE, going on to work as an assistant at a clothes shop and eventually become a youth worker.

'I had to sneak out of Pakistan to escape army – and became UK's youngest mayor' erideuiqtqiqdrinvCharles, then Prince of Wales, presenting Nasim with an OBE medal in 2011 (Supplied)

During this time, Nasim set up the Camden United Project, where he used football sessions to bring the community together and help combat youth violence. He said: "I took an international team to Holland and the first game we played was against all white Dutch players.

"Our goalkeeper was Bangladeshi and he was called the 'P' word, then all of our white players started defending him. That started a catalyst of 'look, we're all the same'. So that's how we started that relationship building. We built up a strong friendship among those young people - they're still friends now and the project is still going."

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Nasim achieved the Camden Good Citizen award for his work, and also won the British Urban Regeneration Association award in 1998. In 2002 he shifted his focus to solely politics, joining the Labour Party and becoming a councillor for Camden, swiftly progressing to Deputy Mayor.

'I had to sneak out of Pakistan to escape army – and became UK's youngest mayor'Nasim meeting Nelson Mandela in 2003 (Supplied)
'I had to sneak out of Pakistan to escape army – and became UK's youngest mayor'Nasim with London Mayor Sadiq Khan (Nash_Ali21/Twitter)

Just one year later, he became Mayor for the borough at the age of 34 - the youngest in the UK at that time - as well as the nation's first Bangladeshi and first Muslim mayor. He worked his way up to council leader in 2010, standing down in 2012 to continue his youth work as Cabinet Member for Children and Young People.

He continued: "I wanted to inspire more young people to do better for themselves and raise their aspirations, especially those of BAME backgrounds. They had a lack of role models, especially in politics or in anything at that time."

Nasim became Mayor of Camden for a second time in 2022, before his role was taken over by Cllr Nazma Rahman a year later. Since first stepping into politics, he says that society has changed for the better, but believes there is still more work to be done.

'I had to sneak out of Pakistan to escape army – and became UK's youngest mayor'He became Mayor of Camden at the age of 34 - the youngest in the UK at that time (camden.gov.uk)

He said: "Sometimes you've got to turn that hate into love to try and change society for the better, and that's what I've been doing throughout. We've got a lot more people from other diversities in local government now, as well as younger people coming and joining the council.

"We have a more diverse parliament as well, and more Muslims in local councils, but there's still a long way to go. Hate crime is more hidden - we've recently seen more anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, but it's perhaps more institutional. For example, following the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the Met Police were advised about changes by the independent advisory group, but if you look at that now then not a lot has changed.

"It's improved in certain areas but if you look at others there's still a long way to go. It's one step forward and two steps back. Camden is now a far better place to live, especially if you're from a BAME community, but not all of London or the UK is as safe, diverse or welcoming as Camden is."

'I had to sneak out of Pakistan to escape army – and became UK's youngest mayor'Nasim has been Mayor of Camden twice (camden.gov.uk)

Nasim decided to share his story and experiences to mark South Asian Heritage Month (SAHM), which runs every year from July 18 to August 17. The month seeks to understand the diverse heritage and cultures that continue to link the UK with South Asia.

Telling of his celebrations, Nasim said: "We had over 5000 people come together to taste delicious Asian foods and witness Asian culture, all singing and dancing. I think it's really good that it's being celebrated.

"Before, we had Islamic Awareness Week but that seemed to just fizzle away. It's good to promote the positive side of South Asian heritage and also the differences that we are making to this country.

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"We've worked hard to be here and now we're working hard to make it a better community and country for everyone. Not just for Black or Asian people, but everyone. There's so much to celebrate and I just hope that now it's here it stays, and continues to be celebrated."

Katie Weston

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