Pious Ali immigrated from the West African nation of Ghana in 2000, where he worked as a freelance photojournalist for a newspaper, magazine and advertising agencies.

The 47-year-old said he went to New York City to seek new opportunities. He was staying with his cousins when he ran into an old friend from Ghana, who was visiting the city but actually lived in Portland, where he was a student at the Maine College of Art. Ali visited his friend a few times before deciding to move here in 2002. He became a U.S. citizen a few years later.

“I photographed everybody in Ghana – from the everyday people on the streets to the president,” Ali joked. “There was no one left for me to photograph.”

Ali said his first job in Portland was working as a prep cook, butcher and dishwasher in a local restaurant. He later took jobs at the Portland Regional Opportunity Program – which has since merged with Youth Alternatives to become the Opportunity Alliance – and Preble Street, a nonprofit that operates a soup kitchen and shelters. He worked with homeless and disadvantaged youth.

It was at that point, he said, that he decided he wanted to focus on helping people, especially immigrants, who were struggling to advocate for themselves and their children.

“Those two groups of young people got me interested in social issues and energized me to push for things I believe in,” Ali said. “They pushed me to learn more and open my mind to a lot (of) things and I started (to advocate) for those kids.”


Ali, who has a 20-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter, co-founded the Maine Interfaith Youth Alliance and traveled throughout the state putting on workshops about diversity for school-based civil rights groups.

Ali has gone on to help individual families and students resolve conflicts at home and at school. He has also has spoken out against local hate crimes, as well as the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant rhetoric of President-elect Donald Trump, who said during a campaign event in Portland that Somali immigrants were responsible for crimes. Ali was among protesters during that visit in August, and was a lead organizer, along with Republican consultant Lance Dutson, of a previous protest against Trump during a March campaign visit to Portland.

Ali is credited with being the first Muslim elected to office in Maine, but he is quick to point out that a Muslim in Lewiston was also elected in 2013. However, the results of the Lewiston election were challenged, delaying the official results.

Ali said he’s humbled to be elected to the City Council as an immigrant and a Muslim, especially in this political climate. While he doesn’t want to be hemmed in by those things, he acknowledges he is positioned to help people learn more about people like him.

“It’s an opportunity to engage people and educate them on who we are as a community,” Ali said.

Three days after winning the council seat, Ali said he boarded a plane and flew to London, where he participated in the week-long Gather Fellowship Launch, which is sponsored by Seeds of Peace, a peace-building and leadership development program. He was one of 16 people worldwide selected from a pool of 140 applicants.

Ali said he is eager to get to work on a host of issues as a councilor. His top priority will be looking to increase economic opportunities for young people by opening up more internship opportunities for them while they are in high school. He is also eager to work toward passing a $70 million bond to renovate the city’s elementary schools.

“I’m very grateful for this opportunity and I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues and the residents of Portland to make Portland a place where we all want to be,” he said.

Correction: This story was updated at 3:15 p.m. on Dec. 5 to correct an inaccurate sub-headline. Ali did not become an American citizen in 2002.

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