Former Somali child refugee changing the face of British politics — with a smile

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Magid Magid meeting the voters of Sheffield.
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Magid Magid
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The UK city (below) has an industrial history stretching back three centuries.(Shutterstock photo)
Updated 31 August 2018
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Former Somali child refugee changing the face of British politics — with a smile

  • “It was about doing politics in a different way,” says outspoken, fun-loging and irreverend Magid Magid
  • Magid fled war-torn Somalia with his mother when he was 5, arriving in the UK in 1994, where they were given asylum

CAUX, Switzerland: Magid Magid tore up the rule book when he was elected lord mayor of Sheffield, the no-nonsense former steel town in Britain’s heartland.

As the first Muslim, the youngest person and the first Green Party councillor to take the role, Magid’s appointment divided public opinion in the UK.

But in the three months since the May election, his refreshingly open attitude, relaxed attire and unconventional pronouncements have turned the former refugee from war-torn Somalia into a national treasure — and a global viral sensation.

Now the British-Somali activist has spoken of his aim to make politics more accessible and engage with the younger generation, vowing to continue his “tongue-in-cheek, with a serious undertone” approach to his lord mayoral role. 

In an interview with Arab News, he outlined the main goals he wants to achieve during his term of office. “The main two things for me are young people and the creative sector; those are my two passions,” he said. “That is to empower young people and give them the skills and resources to really make change.” 

This, he said, includes making politics more accessible in order to encourage young UK citizens into local and national governmental roles. 

“My other goal is about championing arts and the creative sector,” he said. “If I can play a role in some of that, it will be amazing.”

The Green Party councillor attracted global media attention minutes into his new role when he posed for his official portrait to mark the appointment — a tradition dating back to the 19th century — by squatting on the plinth of the town hall stairs wearing his official gold livery collar, coupled with chunky Dr. Martens boots.

When Arab News met Magid during a conference in Switzerland — an invitation-only global network for leaders of Muslim backgrounds — he was wearing jeans, an open Hawaiian-style shirt, a baseball cap turned back to front and his trademark wide smile. 

“I guess I didn’t get the note about the dress code,” he said, laughing.

Magid Magid at the age of 5

When asked why his appointment — and that photograph — grabbed world media attention, Magid said it is because he had managed to turn “what was a traditionally ‘fuddy-duddy’ role into something that was engaging and accessible.

“It was about doing politics in a different way,” he said. “People  want stuff they can relate to and, for me, it was just about being creative and fun, a bit tongue-in-cheek but with a serious undertone.

“I was just being myself. And that was resonating with people much more than if I had listened to the council and those people who were saying: ‘Magid, you are breaking tradition, who do you think you are?’

“But I had expected that before I came to the role. I said to myself: ‘Magid, you have thick skin, but you are going to annoy a lot
of people.’ 

“I didn’t come with that purpose — but to do what I think is right and stay honest to myself, and then the response was crazy. At times it has been positively overwhelming but it has been great.”

Magid’s story has been well documented. Born in Somalia, he, his mother, four older sisters and an older brother fled the war-torn country when he was 5, spending six months in an Ethiopian refugee camp before arriving in the
UK in 1994, where they were given asylum.

Life at first was a struggle. He had to grow up fast to support his mother, who worked as a cleaner but struggled to learn English and adapt to their new life. That meant Magid taking on roles that were well ahead of others his age.

“I had to do stuff like translate, filling out forms, but it was just part of the learning curve,” said Magid. 

While studying at university, Magid founded a mixed martial arts club and was elected to the students’ union sports executive. It was his first foray into championing the voice of others.

Why politics? “I was tired of moaning,” he said. “If you don’t do politics, politics will do you. The people who make decisions for us do not reflect the people they are representing. So it was a case of let me add my voice and speak for the people who are not being represented. 

“I just wanted to have a positive contribution to those around me, even if it meant in my small part of Sheffield as a councillor. It was just that notion that I wanted the world to be a better place by having me in it,” he said.

In the three months since taking office, Magid continues to approach his role in a largely unorthodox manner, including inviting letter-writers who condemned his election in the local press to a round-table meeting to discuss issues “head-on.”

“We are in an age of politics where people want something to believe in,” he said. “They choose people now based on emotions, and if you can engage with those emotions, you are on to a winner.”

That, he believes, is another reason he ultimately won people over, including many who were openly hostile to him initially.

“There are not many diverse people … in politics,” he said. “Also, we live in a time that is filled with so much hatred and divide, and when people feel a bit of hope, they want to hold on to that.”

What next for Magid? “Well, no one joins the Green Party to have a career in politics,” he said with a cheeky wink. “For me, I am not sure. I will also take a new opportunity, take myself out of my comfort zone. As long as I have a positive contribution to those around me, then I will be happy. 

“I don’t feel like I am here to change the world, but if I can provide a spark in something or somebody — and that person ends up changing the world — then I feel that is my goal.”


Will flying cars take off? Japan’s government hopes so

Updated 18 September 2018
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Will flying cars take off? Japan’s government hopes so

  • This vision of the future is driving the Japanese government’s “flying car” project

TOKYO: Electric drones booked through smartphones pick people up from office rooftops, shortening travel time by hours, reducing the need for parking and clearing smog from the air.
This vision of the future is driving the Japanese government’s “flying car” project. Major carrier All Nippon Airways, electronics company NEC Corp. and more than a dozen other companies and academic experts hope to have a road map ready by the year’s end.
“This is such a totally new sector Japan has a good chance for not falling behind,” said Fumiaki Ebihara, the government official in charge of the project.
Nobody believes people are going to be zipping around in flying cars any time soon. Many hurdles remain, such as battery life, the need for regulations and, of course, safety concerns. But dozens of similar projects are popping up around the world. The prototypes so far are less like traditional cars and more like drones big enough to hold people.
A flying car is defined as an aircraft that’s electric, or hybrid electric, with driverless capabilities, that can land and takeoff vertically.
They are often called EVtol, which stands for “electric vertical takeoff and landing” aircraft.
The flying car concepts promise to be better than helicopters, which are expensive to maintain, noisy to fly and require trained pilots, Ebihara and other proponents say.
“You may think of ‘Back to the Future,’ ‘Gundam,’ or ‘Doraemon,’” Ebihara said, referring to vehicles of flight in a Hollywood film and in Japanese cartoons featuring robots. “Up to now, it was just a dream, but with innovations in motors and batteries, it’s time for it to become real.”
Google, drone company Ehang and car manufacturer Geely in China, and Volkswagen AG of Germany have invested in flying car technology.
Nissan Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co. said they had nothing to say about flying cars, but Toyota Motor Corp. recently invested $500 million in working with Uber on self-driving technology for the ride-hailing service. Toyota group companies have also invested 42.5 million yen ($375,000) in a Japanese startup, Cartivator, that is working on a flying car.
The hope is to fly up and light the torch at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but it’s unclear it will meet that goal: At a demonstration last year, the device crashed after it rose to slightly higher than eye level. A video of a more recent demonstration suggests it’s now flying more stably, though it’s being tested indoors, unmanned and chained so it won’t fly away.
There are plenty of skeptics.
Elon Musk, chief executive of electric car maker Tesla Inc., says even toy drones are noisy and blow a lot of air, which means anything that would be “1,000 times heavier” isn’t practical.
“If you want a flying car, just put wheels on a helicopter,” he said in a recent interview with podcast host and comedian Joe Rogan on YouTube. “Your neighbors are not going to be happy if you land a flying car in your backyard or on your rooftop.”
Though the Japanese government has resisted Uber’s efforts to offer ride-hailing services in Japan, limiting it to partnerships with taxi companies, it has eagerly embraced the US company’s work on EVtol machines.
Uber says it is considering Tokyo as its first launch city for affordable flights via its UberAir service. It says Los Angeles and Dallas, Texas, and locations in Australia, Brazil, France and India are other possible locations.
Unlike regular airplanes, with their aerodynamic design and two wings, Uber’s “Elevate” structures look like small jets with several propellers on top. The company says it plans flight demonstrations as soon as 2020 and a commercial service by 2023.
Uber’s vision calls for using heliports on rooftops, but new multi-floored construction similar to parking lots for cars will likely be needed to accommodate EVtol aircraft if the service takes off.
Unmanned drones are legal in Japan, the US and other countries, but there are restrictions on where they can be flown and requirements for getting approval in advance. In Japan, drone flyers can be licensed if they take classes. There is no requirement like drivers licenses for cars.
Flying passengers over populated areas would take a quantum leap in technology, overhauling aviation regulations and air traffic safety controls, along with major efforts both to ensure safety and convince people it’s safe.
Uber said at a recent presentation in Tokyo that it envisions a route between the city’s two international airports, among others.
“This is not a rich person’s toy. This is a mass market solution,” said Adam Warmoth, product manager at Uber Elevate.
Concepts for flying cars vary greatly. Some resemble vehicles with several propellers on top while others look more like a boat with a seat over the propellers.
Ebihara, the flying-car chief at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, says Japan is on board for “Blade Runner” style travel — despite its plentiful, efficient and well developed public transportation.
Japan’s auto and electronics industries have the technology and ability to produce super-light materials that could give the nation an edge in the flying car business, he said.
Just as the automobile vanquished horse-drawn carriages, moving short-distance transport into the air could in theory bring a sea change in how people live, Ebihara said, pointing to the sky outside the ministry building to stress how empty it was compared to the streets below.
Flying also has the allure of a bird’s eye view, the stuff of drone videos increasingly used in filmmaking, tourism promotion and journalism.
Atsushi Taguchi, a “drone grapher,” as specialists in drone video are called, expects test flights can be carried out even if flying cars won’t become a reality for years since the basic technology for stable flying already exists with recent advances in sensors, robotics and digital cameras.
A growing labor shortage in deliveries in Japan is adding to the pressures to realize such technology, though there are risks, said Taguchi, who teaches at the Tokyo film school Digital Hollywood.
The propellers on commercially sold drones today are dangerous, and some of his students have lost fingers with improper flying. The bigger propellers needed for vertical flight would increase the hazards and might need to be covered.
The devices might need parachutes to soften crash landings, or might have to explode into small bits to ensure pieces hitting the ground would be smaller.
“I think one of the biggest hurdles is safety,” said Taguchi. “And anything that flies will by definition crash.”
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Follow Yuri Kageyama on Twitter at https://twitter.com/yurikageyama
Her work can be found at https://www.apnews.com/search/yuri%20kageyama