BIG INTERVIEW: The new-model mayor - Nasim Ali mayor, London Borough of Camden

By Dan Williamson

| 24 June 2003

Nasim Ali is no ordinary mayor. At 34, he is the country's youngest ever mayor. And to top that, he is also Camden's first ever Bangladeshi mayor. But perhaps the most impressive quality of the London borough's civic head, appointed last month, is that he is a fully fledged youth worker.

Ali admits he has barely had five minutes to spare this year, balancing his ambassadorial role as Camden's civic leader with a full-time role at King's Cross Brunswick Neighbourhood Association, one of the largest community groups in the borough.

Since joining the association in 1995, Ali has worked to actively promote the views of young people and the area's diverse community. As well as helping manage an open-door community youth centre, which is visited by about 60 young people on each of the three days it is open, he also runs external activity projects that cater for nine to 14-year-olds and another group for 15-year-olds and above. Plus, he works on a training and employment project that supports young people aged 18 to 23 with CV writing and interview skills.

A Camden resident for 28 years, Ali has been involved in voluntary work since the age of 14, and in 1989 was seconded from Camden Youth Service to become a part-time volunteer for the community and social welfare charity Bengali Workers' Association.

"I have a passion for working with young people," says Ali. "I felt a lot of positive changes needed to be made in the way that young people were valued, listened to and how they communicate."

After joining the neighbourhood association, Ali combined these beliefs and his passion for football to create the Camden United project, which uses the sport to bring together conflicting groups of Bangladeshi and white youths. The project couldn't come too soon, after tensions began to flare up in 1995 when the murder of a young white man by Asian youths seemed to kick off racist attacks on the Bangladeshi community.

The project has been such a success that in 1998, Ali was awarded one of the first Camden Good Citizen Awards, in recognition of the project's ability to unite and divert local young people away from crime and drugs.

As well as boasting a team made up of 13 nationalities, players of religions including Islam, Hindu, Judaism and Christianity are all on the team.

"It works because people have a passion for sport, and football is a universal language," says Ali.

An example of the bond that has grown between the Camden United players was illustrated by an incident on a trip the players took to Holland for an international sports event. Abuse was shouted at the Bengali footballers in the Camden United team from the Dutch white players' stand. The non-Bengali team members immediately jumped to their team-mates' defence.

Ali admits to experiencing racism within Camden first-hand, albeit a long time ago while growing up in the late seventies and early eighties.

Despite playing these events down, the mayor acknowledges that such times have proved valuable.

"I understand what issues young people are facing," says Ali. "My experience helps me know what will work."

He plans to continue his youth work and is working on raising funds for the Camden United project. As well as applying to Comic Relief's Sport Relief, he has far more radical plans for funding new projects in Camden.

He wants to abseil down the BT Tower, decked in his full mayoral chains to raise funds for the Mayor's Charity, a fund that aims to help the needy in the local community.

FYI

- Nasim Ali was officially made mayor of Camden on 14 May 2003, and will hold the post for one year

- One of the biggest Bangladeshi organisations in Camden, the Bengali Workers' Association provides education, training, medical help, recreation and environmental development to children, young and old people in Camden

- The King's Cross Brunswick Neighbourhood Association was established in 1980, is a registered charity and has 17 workers, 10 of which are youth workers involved in local youth clubs and numerous projects.

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