'We need to change perceptions', says Surrey's new champion for minority communities (From Surrey Comet)
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'We need to change perceptions', says Surrey Police's new champion for minority communities Shiraz Mirza
A man who united different cultures as Kingston's first Asian mayor wants to "build bridges, change perceptions and bring everybody on board" in his new role championing Surrey's minority communities.
Shiraz Mirza, a Liberal Democrat councillor in Kingston, was appointed assistant commissioner for equality and diversity by Surrey's Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Kevin Hurley last month.
Coun Mirza was introduced to Mr Hurley by a mutual friend before the first PCC's elections in November, when the pair discussed Mr Hurley's campaign and the councillor's work bringing together different minority communities in Kingston.
After winning the election as an independent, Mr Hurley approached Coun Mirza to discuss a role "to build bridges between the various communities which are scattered around Surrey".
The 61-year-old said: "I started to smile when Kevin mentioned this role as it is something I love doing anyway.
"He said to me 'the role you have in Kingston - reaching out to communities, establishing community halls, what you have achieved - I want to repeat that across Surrey'.
"He had the vision."
In an interview with the Epsom Guardian in February, Mr Hurley - who aims to implement a 'zero tolerance approach' to policing across Surrey - caused controversy with comments he made questioning whether racism had been institutionalised in the police, his belief that police ethnic diversity is not a necessity, and why the beliefs of minority communities themselves explain their reluctance to join the police.
Coun Mirza said that, from his experience, Mr Hurley is a "wonderful, diverse and very honest man".
He said: "Kevin is very knowledgeable - any subject, any faith, any issue, he talks about it.
"He will not mince his words, he will say what he believes.
"If I felt in any way uncomfortable of Kevin's views, I would be the first one to put my hand up and say 'this is not for me'.
"If people have read about his opinions in a certain way, they should not take it in a certain way.
"I think the man is much bigger than how a few lines may have come across on that day."
Coun Mirza, who lives in Leatherhead Road, Chessington, became a councillor in 1998, serving as Kingston's first Asian mayor in 2000 and again in 2007.
As mayor, he established the Shiraz Mirza Community Hall Trust which led to the opening of two "multicultural community hubs" in New Malden and Norbiton - halls which host social, business and training activities to encourage social cohesion, and which are owned by the community itself.
'Illness gave me second life'
After becoming mayor in 2000, Coun Mirza said that one of his first aims was "to meet every single officer of the council" because "you need to have personal interaction with people to find out about them".
This love of interaction - to learn and to change perceptions - characterises Coun Mirza's work and has its roots in the time when he was paralysed by a neurological virus, which changed his philosophy on life.
It was during his rehabilitation that he began to foster new links with his local community.
Coun Mirza said: "I have a reason to smile because of my illness, because of my second life. I have never been serious, I am always happy."
He added: "Kevin was standing as a non-political person. I have a political role, but I'm non-political.
"I am politician with a small 'p' - a community politician. I focus one-to-one with my residents.
"When this role came up, my foundation was very strong. What I'm saying to people is 'let's meet one-to-one. Let me hear. Tell me'."
Coun Mirza, who came to Britain from Pakistan when he was 19, said he sees his new role as a "champion" for equality and diversity in a context wider than that just of the police.
He said: "I want to change perceptions. I need to make sure this happens not just from a police perspective, but from a community perspective."
Coun Mirza wants to encourage people from minority groups to approach him with their experiences and believes he can relate to them - not because of his own ethnicity, but because of his desire to reach out to people and improve situations.
He said: "I want people to be upfront. Sometimes in minority communities there is a stigma that people don't want their issues to get out.
"I want people to think I am one of them - not because of my colour, but because it is my role. It is my role to change thinking.
"If we are here to live, work and enjoy life, we need to open up on a fundamental level.
"I'm only a phone call away."
Coun Mirza said he has already been proactive in reaching out to the "different pockets" within Surrey. Last week, he attended a forum in Epsom designed to educate people about the gypsy community.
He plans to continue as a Kingston councillor while undertaking the part-time, £12,500 a year role, in which, at the moment, he is offering advice to Mr Hurley while learning more about Surrey's diversity.
He said: "It's too early for me to say 'that's what I'm going to do'. I want to see where the gaps are and what people are lacking."
He said his research has shown that there is a large Muslim community - consisting of Sunni, Shia, Ahmadiyya, Arab and Iranian sects - as well as white Eastern European groups, travellers and gypsies, and other Asian groups within the county.
Coun Mirza said "it is a challenge when you have small groups scattered around", so-called 'invisible communities', because "I really will have to go looking for them", but that it is "always a challenge to reach out".
He said his personal experiences of the police involve being stopped "maybe once or twice and spoken to very pleasantly" and that he became its "number one fan" after spending a night with the Kingston force while mayor.
Coun Mirza said: "We went to the scene of a car accident in which two girls died. Back at the station, I saw real human beings - people in tears, a very emotionally charged atmosphere."
In 2010, Coun Mirza's son, Sharukh, was charged with assault after it was alleged that he and a friend were involved in an incident at a cricket match in Kingston, apparently sparked by insults and racist taunts.
He was found not guilty, but, after the trial, Coun Mirza described the episode as "the worst moment of my life".
He said: "I was there. I saw it. But the police said they didn't want to talk to me, even though I knew the allegations were not true.
"Was it because I was a councillor? A former mayor? Because he was my son?
"These things happen in life, you need to look at the bigger picture. It's a good thing this happened because it gave me a different perspective - the way I look at it is that they forgot about who I was."
"I don't believe in positive discrimination"
Coun Mirza said recruitment to the police should be on merit and disagrees with the Met Police's idea to recruit one ethnic minority officer alongside every white officer to boost its ethnic make-up.
He said: "I don’t believe in positive discrimination. The best person should get the job.
"But I am also looking to see whether areas with ethnic minorities in Surrey need more police officers who are bilingual, to understand the issues of the communities they are trying to safeguard better."
Coun Mirza believes Britain is today "one country of diverse groups" and that people are quick to forget the multiculturalism at the heart of its history when condemning immigration.
He said: "We are the advocates of equality and diversity. We ruled the world.
"We have set examples and others follow us - how can we turn these people [minorities] away, the majority of whom are very genuine?
"Britain is not really doing anything favourable to these people - this is our heritage, and these people feel their roots are here.
"People need to understand that this is a moral obligation. It is what the British Empire was all about and what we have achieved. We have inherited a lot of different cultures."
He added: "I can't say I could have achieved what I have back in Pakistan because of the equality and diversity which is on offer here."
When asked whether one problem is that people living in today's Britain feel no real link to the British Empire, he acknowledged that "the people of a generation who knew how good life was then" have gone and young people today "see everyone struggling".
He said that while there are some issues with immigration, there are not as many as people think: "People said I wouldn't be elected in Kingston because there were a lot of racists. When I stood, there were only two Asian homes - one was mine.
"It was the late 1990s and a lot was being said about refugees and asylum seekers. That was the first time I got elected."
Coun Mirza wants to hear from you. Call him on 07881039357 or email Mirza15202@surrey.pnn.police.uk.
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