A WOKING businessman has become the first Muslim High Sheriff of Surrey.

Shahid Azeem was installed in an online ceremony with each participant in a separate location because of the coronavirus lockdown.

Mr Azeem said: “This moment is a huge privilege but at a time of national crisis, it is also a huge responsibility.

“We have had time in our nation’s history where moments like this – installation ceremonies which have been annual events in Surrey since 1080 – have occasionally been cancelled because of civil war, a rebellion, and the threat we face today is no less serious.

“So while I’m disappointed in not sharing this moment with friends and family, I know that it’s a small sacrifice to ensure we keep people safe and save lives.

“These are unprecedented times and more than ever we need community, we need bridge builders and those that provide the glue that hold communities together.

“As the High Sheriff I will ensure I am a voice for the police, the prison service, courts, the third sector and charities during my tenure”

Caroline Breckell, MVO, was appointed as Under Sheriff and Rev Philip Simpson and Imam Hafiz Hashmi, from the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking, are Mr Azeem’s two chaplains.

He has lived in Surrey since 1969 and suffered racism while at school, leading to him being expelled.

Mr Azeem wanted to become a footballer but, after breaking his leg, moved into IT, working in the public and private sector before starting his own business.

Mr Azeem lives in Woking with his wife, Sameena, and has two grown-up sons and a daughter. He is chairman of Aldershot Town FC. 

He said: “I have always lived and breathed Surrey. It’s where I arrived, it is what has shaped me.

“I am grateful for what Surrey has offered me and made me – a part of the fabric of Surrey’s society.

“I am now being given the opportunity to play my part in supporting and strengthening that society. This is a year where the importance of community has never been more vital.”

Mr Azeem has three main aims for his Shrieval year.

In memory of his best friend, Barry Hitchcock, who died last year, he wants to set up with the Surrey Coroner a non-intrusive postmortem scanning and public mortuary, giving loved ones dignity in death.

His next project is to develop an app that tackles hunger and food waste.

He is also working with Spice Village restaurants and Pakistani students from London School of Economics to provide one million free meals to frontline key workers during the coronavirus crisis.

Mr Azeem will also promote the Community Foundation for Surrey’s Sports Fund, with a programme of events to raise funds to support people to pursue a career in sport.

His appointment was praised by Lord-Lieutenant of Surrey, Michael More-Molyneux, who described him as “a great example of what can be achieved with a sense of purpose, energy, values and a desire to give, rather than just receive”.

The High Commissioner for Pakistan, Mohammad Nafees Zakaria, said: “This is an apt recognition of your achievements and valuable contribution to the British society.”

David Bittleston, the leader of Woking Borough Council, said: “Having known Shahid for many years, I know his commitment to Surrey’s communities will be invaluable when upholding this important and ancient role during these unprecedented and challenging times.”