WHEN Ali Hamou first arrived in Ireland, in early 2002, he wasn’t dressed for the weather.
Wearing only a T-shirt and shorts, the Algerian-born Ali was already soaked from a heavy shower just a few minutes out of Dublin Airport.
“It was lashing, and I had nothing to wear, I should have Googled the weather or something,” he recalls, laughing.
But soon enough, a driver had seen his plight, stopped his car and offered Ali a lift, free of charge, which served to reinforce the positive mental image Ali had of Ireland.
“I’d always heard about Irish kindness, that’s why I’d decided to come to Ireland, what that man did that night just confirmed what I’d heard before,” he says.
“I said to myself, this is my country, I’m staying here, and I never thought to go anywhere else ever since.”
Ali has now dedicated much of his life to helping others in his adopted home town, Cork.
This Christmas, he and his friends at an inter-faith group that Ali founded in 2015 are collecting pre-loved raincoats and winter clothing from locals to gift to those who need it most: the city’s homeless.
This is caring Ali’s way of giving back to the people who have offered him umbrellas, lifts and sometimes just a few kind words, over the years.
“I’d lived all over Europe before moving here, and a lot of times when people saw the colour of my skin they’d go ‘uh-oh, trouble’,” he says.
“But here, that man stopped and asked if I needed a lift,” Ali adds, a smile in his voice as he recalls that incident all of 16 years ago.
Ali’s group, One Community Cork, is mostly comprised of practising Muslims like himself. However, it has active members of various religions as well as none.
Ali emphasises that the group does not promote any religion, and he has no intention of converting people to Islam.
One Community distributes food to the city’s homeless every weekend, with companies like Amazon offering their employees incentives for volunteering with them.
Tesco, as well as smaller local businesses such as Fat Belly on George’s Quay, Food Hut on the Mardyke and Lavish on Washington Street, also donate free food to the group.
Although Muslims do not celebrate Christmas in a religious sense, Ali, who has an open, laidback manner, says he views it as an occasion which has a lot to do with people’s hearts as opposed to their faiths.
He is also aware of a persistent misconception that Muslims are in some way against the Christian holiday.
“People can think whatever they want, but we don’t have a problem with Christmas, the fact that we are doing it (the charity work) at this time of the year speaks for itself,” he says.
“We have no right to be against Christmas. Christmas is about being kind to one another, human to human, brothers and sisters and humanity.”
Ali has described himself as “a loving and a caring person” . Asked if he feels pressured to reassure people of his kind nature due to some people’s negative perception of his faith, he exclaims: “Spot on.”
“In mosques, the preacher, the Imam, is always talking good things, but it stays there. I’ve always been against that. It is time for Muslims to practice what they preach,” he says.
Stephen Gregory, an English man who has been living in Cork since the 1990s and has recently converted to Islam, agrees.
“For years, Muslims in Cork have decided to keep their heads down, to become invisible, not making any waves, mostly because of what the media says about Muslims,” he says.
In Cork, the Muslim Foundation and Cork Islamic Cultural Centre reportedly each have more than 500 members.
Ali and Stephen both believe that hiding away from society is not only going to change the way people view Muslims, but may affirm bigotry and racist sentiments.
“Because of the media, our reputation is tarnished,” Ali says.
“It is time for Muslims to be active members of the society, to go out and serve the community as much as we can, that is the only way to change that.”
The 47-year-old recounts being verbally abused for many years while on his way to Muslims’ Friday prayer wearing a thawb, a long robe worn by Muslim men.
He also once witnessed a Muslim woman in Cork being physically harassed while heavily pregnant.
“A man told this woman ‘Take off your scarf, you don’t have to wear it’, and then he poured beer on her head,” Ali recalls.
Ali, who works at Cork city’s Quay Co-Op Vegetarian Restaurant and Wholefood Store, has also helped Sam Waldron, a teenage volunteer at his group, to find employment at the eatery.
“I knew Ali from feeding the homeless, I didn’t know the group first, I walked up to them with one of my friends, and we asked how we could help,” Sam says.
“And then Ali got me the job here. He is very kind and sweet, he’ll do everything he can to help everybody.”
Sam admits that people attributing violence to Muslims is “fairly common”.
“A lot of people think that all Muslims are going to act a certain way, it is a misconception, and it is very, very untrue,” he says.
Ali also has a brief Christmas message for Corkonians: “Love one another, as simple as that.”
For more information on the One Community Group, see https://www.facebook.com/1communitycork/