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Saji Cheriyan and wife Elsy

Abu Dhabi: Indian businessman, Saji Cheriyan, was dubbed an ambassador of peace and tolerance when he gifted a mosque to Muslim workers in Fujariah during Ramadan in 2018.

But Cheriyan, a Christian, never expected the country will one day honour him with the UAE Pioneers Award, which he received on Tuesday from His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

“This is something beyond my imagination. This is beyond what I could ever achieve,” a jubilant Saji told Gulf News minutes after receiving the honour at a grand function in Abu Dhabi.

The Keralite expat said receiving the UAE Pioneers Award for promoting values of a tolerant society and promoting cohesion in the UAE is the proudest moment in his life.

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A Christian expat, who landed in the UAE with just a few hundred dirhams in 2003, is giving a mosque to hundreds of workers this Ramadan. Indian expat Saji Cheriyan in front of the mosque he has built for workers in Fujairah. - Courtesy: Saji Cheriyan

What Shaikh Mohammad asked him

He said he was also overwhelmed when Shaikh Mohammad spoke to him on the stage.

“He spoke to me in Arabic. I was surprised he knows that I can speak Arabic. He asked me why I made a mosque though I am a Christian. I told him that I was seeing several poor workers having to take taxi to go to the nearest mosque and I built it to help them.”

Shaikh Mohammad also enquired about his iftar distribution during Ramadan, he said.

“I was so happy His Highness knew about that also. I told him I had managed to provide 28,000 iftar meals during last Ramadan.”

He said he was happy to have received the honour in front of leaders from various emirates.

“I thank this country and its leaders profusely. I am so happy that I could do something in return for this country that gave me so much in my life. I am so thankful to Gulf News and other media also who brought the leaders’ attention to what I did.”

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Indian expat Saji Cheriyan in front of the mosque he has built for labourers in Fujairah COURTESY Saji Cheriyan

Return gift from God

Saji was accompanied by his wife Elsy, who has been his inspiration to bounce back when he went through several hardships in the UAE during his initial years.

“It was my wish to see Shaikh Mohammad. I am so lucky that I could see him and many other leaders here. I was really emotional while sitting in the second row and watching my husband receiving the award from His Highness. I don’t have words to explain my happiness,” said Elsy.

“This is definitely the proudest moment in our lives. When we did all these, we never expected anything in return. God has given this in return to us. God has blessed us so much and chose my husband for receiving this great honour. We feel really blessed,” she added.

The couple have two sons, Sachin and Elvin, who are studying in India.

Built at a cost of Dh1.3 million in the East Ville Real Estate complex of Al Hayl Industrial Estate, Saji’s mosque is named Mariam, Um Eissa (Mary, the Mother of Jesus). He chose this name as an Abu Dhabi mosque was renamed so in 2017.

Saji, an Orthodox Christian by birth, had previously built a church for his parish in Dibba and also used to keep the doors of a multipurpose hall in the East Ville Complex for various other groups of Christian believers to pray.

People of different faiths now conduct their events at the Media Park Convention Centre that he has built in the same complex.