Mohammed Ali says Canberra is better when it comes together to help one another.
And he would know, given the number of charitable causes he puts his time and energy towards.
The founder and president of HelpingACT – an organisation he started in 2018 after his retirement to provide food security to those Canberrans struggling to get by – was named the 2022 Canberra Citizen of the Year at a ceremony on Tuesday (15 March).
As usual, Mr Ali was humble, saying he was “over the moon” and in “complete disbelief” to have been awarded the honour, but he still said he “didn’t deserve it”.
His first thought upon receiving the award was how he could use it to raise awareness of his charity and help even greater numbers of Canberrans in need – which he warns is a growing number.
“There is an underclass of Canberrans developing at the moment,” Mr Ali said.
“It’s because of COVID-19, the petrol prices and all of that, it’s just added to it”.
Mr Ali, who moved to Canberra in 1991, said it’s a city where no one should ever be needy or homeless, and it’s up to Canberrans themselves to ensure that’s what happens.
“At that time, Canberra was a small baby, like me,” he laughed.
“There’s no bias … but Canberra is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Anytime you have a problem, you just pick up the phone and whisper in someone’s ear, and people leave what they are doing and they come and help you.”
The latter is a good way of describing how HelpingACT operates to connect those who need something – whether food or support – with exactly what they need at the right time.
Mr Ali and his team of 30 volunteers work to fill any need at any time.
During the Black Summer bushfires, they worked with Slabs for Heroes to donate goods to fire-affected areas in the region. Meals were also prepared for families housed in evacuation centres set up in Canberra.
In lockdown last year, HelpingACT got to work delivering groceries to Canberrans whose back pockets took a hit or who struggled to get what they needed while in isolation – including refugees, international students, low-income households and the homeless.
Most recently, Mr Ali’s team has been busy welcoming newly-arrived Afghan refugees to Canberra who flew in directly after Kabul fell.
The charity also provides support to other local community organisations, including St Vincent de Paul, Havelock House, the Early Morning Centre, Woden Community Service, and many local street pantries.
His own charitable works began while he was still working at the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) when he and his colleagues set up ‘Curry Lunches’ to raise thousands in funds in the wake of the deadly tsunami of 2004.
Mr Ali also sits on the ACT Multicultural Advisory Board and works with the ACT Refugee Asylum Seeker and Humanitarian Coordination Committee and Companion House.
But his mission in life and charity is largely guided by a couple of four-letter words.
“This is hope. This is care. This is love … We must carve out a collective policy of how we will challenge ourselves to make things better,” he said.
The Citizen of the Year award recognises citizens who have made a significant contribution to the community.
Last year, the award was given to all Canberra citizens who enacted the Territory’s public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr, who hands out the award every March, described Mr Ali as a “very worthy recipient” because of his long history volunteering and supporting various charitable causes.