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Ali Gül Özbek: ‘Integration is important, and people from Turkey have done well’

Ali Gül Özbek spoke to Haber at his Haringey’s Mayoral offices this week

Haringey’s Mayor talks to Haber about community integration, his role as the borough’s first Kurdish-Alevi mayor, and his personal experiences with Lymphoma

When Ali Gül Özbek welcomed us into the Haringey Mayor’s Office, he offered us a glass of wine.

“When I was told when I started that this is the tradition of this office,” he explains. “I came in here and opened up the cupboards looking for books, but everywhere I looked there were bottles.

“They told me that wine, particularly red wine, had been established as the traditional drink for the Mayor of Haringey to offer.”

We politely declined the wine – it being two o’clock in the afternoon – and settled to talk to Cllr Özbek how he took his role and came to proudly intertwine it with his Alevi Kurdish identity.

I’m very lucky

“I’m a very lucky person: I don’t need the money or the status of being mayor. I am here only to represent people. That’s why I donate my entire salary to schools in the area,” he said.

He has strong views on multiculturalism and the meaning of being an expatriate, saying there needs to be a delicate balance between integration and retaining an identity.

“We should be proud of our identities. Multiculturalism is a very good thing and Haringey is a prime example for it: it has a population of around 270,000, but there are 211 languages spoken here.

“And the result? No-one has any problems, everyone is able to live together, establish their own full-time or supplementary schools and continue their lives.

Haringey’s Turkish and Kurdish contribution

Cllr Özbek continued: “As a community, we have to remember that we belong here now. I myself have lived in this country for 24 years. This is our home. And if you live in this country, you have to learn the language and you have to integrate. That’s very important.

“But I would also add this: if integration has reached the stage that I, as someone who can from Turkey, can become the mayor of a London borough, how much more integration do you want?”

The fruits of foreign migrants’ labour can be seen throughout the streets of Haringey, the mayor said. Migrants from Turkey have in particular brought huge value and investment to the area to the extent that there are now well over 100 Turkish-run shops on Haringey’s stretch of Green Lanes alone.

Cllr Ali Gül Özbek is a keen supporter of the Lymphoma Association

The surge in property prices in this part of North London, the way its restaurants attract visitors from other parts of the capital and the general employment and prosperity of the area – all these are aspects of life in Haringey that have changed in the last two decades and migrants from Turkey have played a huge role in that transformation, he said.

Cllr Özbek built a career in the UK running a network of pharmacies, which allows him to donate his whole mayoral salary to local schools, but his official duties mean he is only able to visit the business for a couple of hours each day.

Lymphoma fundraising

The mayor is not the main decision-maker in the council, but he does a significant role chairing council debates and an equally important charitable function.

Cllr Özbek uses the charity aspect of his role to raise funds for the Lymphoma Association. The reasons for doing so are personal: his brother’s struggle with the disease.

Lymphoma is form of cancer that forms in blood cell tumours that is becoming increasingly common in the UK. The association says that one person is diagnosed with it every 28 minutes, making it the country’s fifth most common cancer.

It is most prevalent in people aged 55 and over but it is also the most frequently-diagnosed cancer among young people.

“When my younger brother was diagnosed with lymphoma, he went through nine sessions of chemotherapy treatment. But when the cancer returned, he needed a bone marrow transplant,” he told us.

Vital support

“This was a high-risk procedure for him because he had absolutely no immune system left. They had placed him in a sterile glass room that no-one was allowed to enter unless they wore the correct protective clothing. They kept him in there for 19 days – I wasn’t even allowed to go in myself.

“They extracted stem cells from his own bone marrow and he’s recovered well now.

“But the Lymphoma Association really helped me during that process. I needed somebody that I could turn to and speak with on a one-to-one basis, someone to give me advice, and they were recommended to me by a nurse.

“That is why I have selected them for the Mayor’s Special Fund during my year in office and am organising fundraising activities for the charity.”

The charity medical information and support to people affected by lymphatic cancer including families, friends and carers. Cllr Özbek is planning a fundraising effort later this year.

Click to read from other local politicians in The Community’s Councillors series.