Entrepreneur returns to help Mayo's Muslims
A baby boom among the Muslim population in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, where up to 30 infants are being born every year, has led retired industrialist Mr Sher Mohammed Rafique to predict that before long Muslims will comprise more than 50 per cent of the local population.
Mr Rafique (71) brought the first Muslims to Ballyhaunis 30 years ago when he began the meat slaughtering operation which was to grow into the United Meat Packers (UMP) firm, the second-largest meat processing firm in the country with an annual turnover approaching €250 million.
The last census recorded 317 Muslims in the town which has an overall population of 1,381.
The Pakistani-born entrepreneur has returned to Ireland from Scotland where he became involved in business following the disastrous fire at the UMP intervention store in Ballaghaderreen in January 1992.
Mr Rafique devotes himself nowadays to improving the living and social conditions of the growing Muslim population.
"I feel a strong obligation towards these people having brought their ancestors here," he says.
"There is a great need for housing and for better education and playground facilities."
So far, under the direction of Mr Rafique 12 new comfortable homes have been provided - but there is a need for almost 90 others, he says.
The small core of Muslim workers which Mr Rafique brought to Ballyhaunis to slaughter animals for the Muslim market by the kosher method - where animals have their necks slit and all blood drained from the body - has now grown significantly.
They are employed in many enterprises in the town, mostly connected to the meat industry.
Muslims living in Ballyhaunis have had a mosque in which to pray since the 1980s but there are no graveyard facilities.
This has placed a huge financial burden on families, as it costs between €15,000 and €20,000 to return a body to Pakistan for burial. The alternative is to bury a loved one in Galway.
Mr Rafique has been trying since the 1980s to secure planning permission for a graveyard. The situation was finally rectified this week when Mayo County Council agreed to provide ground for such a facility, and a new mortuary, beside the mosque, is already under construction.
Ground is being cleared to make way for the mortuary where the remains can be accommodated, washed and prayed over before burial.
Asked about his own return to Ballyhaunis, Mr Rafique said: "I knew that one day I had to come back... I don't have any business now."
Mr Rafique's wife, Kausar, who is still in London but intends to join her husband in Ballyhaunis at a later stage, donated some of her land so that the local Muslims could have better housing.Up to 160 of the Ballyhaunis Muslims are under 20 years old and will be marrying and needing houses in the not too distant future, he says.
"Houses are a priority," Mr Rafique says.
"I feel personally responsible for bringing Muslims here and now I must do what I can for them."