Dubai: Rich tributes have been pouring in to pay homage to the UAE’s pioneering educator Mariamma Varkey, mother of Sunny Varkey, chairman and founder of GEMS Education, who passed away in Dubai on Wednesday.
In a social media announcement about her demise, GEMS Education said Mariamma, who was a few months away from turning 90, was “a pioneer in education whose impact transcends generations and is warmly remembered as a beloved mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.”
Many community members remembered her as an iron lady, who toiled to build primary education system in the desert land along with her husband.
Consul General of India in Dubai Dr Aman Puri was one of the first to offer condolences.
In a statement to Gulf News, he said: “On behalf of the Indian community in Dubai and Northern Emirates, and on my own behalf, I wish to convey profound condolences on the passing away of Mrs. Mariamma Varkey and we pray to the Almighty to give the family, strength and fortitude to bear this personal loss.”
He said Mariamma will be remembered for her strong commitment to development of the teaching community and above all as a good human being. “Her contributions as an educationist in the UAE are truly remarkable. My thoughts and prayers are with the family of Mr Sunny Varkey at this time of grief.”
Bond spanning three generations
For the family of Betty Antony, a supervisor with Our Own High School in Al Warqa, the bond with Mariamma Varkey and her education empire spans for three generations.
“My mother Magdalene Anthony worked with Madam Varkey from 1977 till 2010. They worked together in the Bastakiya campus of Our Own School. My brother and I studied there and my sister studied in the Karma branch. Now, I am a supervisor with the same school’s boys’ branch and my daughter is now studying in the girls’ branch. It is a sad day for our entire family.”
As a former student, Betty recollected Mariamma walking around classrooms with a cane.
“All of us, the alumni members of those days associate her with that cane. It was not to bash us, but to correct us. That is precisely why everyone in our alumni group was saying today that Mrs Varkey is remembered for the cane that made us what we are today. We are extremely saddened that she is no longer with us. For us, she was like a family member. If we had any trouble, we could talk to her. Because of her, three generations could live and be part of the organisation and we always felt like there was someone for us. Thousands of alumni members, employees and their families are indebted to her.”
She said her mother, 72, now living in Kerala broke down after hearing about the demise of her former boss who had a sisterly affection.
“She never behaved like the owner of the school. She used to visit us in the school accommodation in Karama and once when I told her that I had seen her in the school, she asked me why I didn’t go and remind her that I am Mrs. Anthony’s daughter. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to meet her after 2006. But we will always keep her in our hearts with gratitude,” said Betty.
Colossal loss to education sector
James Mathew, CEO and managing partner of UHY James Chartered Accountants, said he was lucky to have had the opportunity to interact with the departed.
“A purpose-driven teacher, Madam Varkey was committed in her pursuit of providing quality education to make a difference in society. Through her determination, focus and passion towards touching hearts and transforming lives of students, Madam Varkey set the founding stone of the UAE’s education system — to a large extent.”
“The passing away of Madam Mariamma Varkey today, is a colossal loss to the UAE’s education sector. However, there is no escaping the fact that her legacy as a teacher continues to make an indelible impact on young minds through the GEMS Education Group. My deepest condolences to the heart-broken family in this moment of grief,” he added.
“Her family contributed a lot for the development of Indo-Arab cultural ties. The elderly couple were close to our political leaders,” said Incas UAE general secretary Punnakkan Muhammed Ali.
Inspiration for generations
A long-term employee of GEMS Group, who has had a strong personal rapport with Mariamma for over three decades, said she was an inspiration for generations.
“Thousands of people are living here now because of her. She will continue to live through them. We have shared a lot of time together for professional and personal reasons and she has left a lasting impression in my life, along with both of her children [Sunny Varkey and Susan Thomas]. She extended a helping hand to several people,” he said, requesting not to be named.
In spite of age-related health problems, Mariamma was still active in various fields and preferred to keep a low profile in the business circles till she became bedridden a few years ago.
He said she was known better among hundreds of underprivileged people and children back in India who benefited from her charity funds.
“She was a rock that built that empire,” said Brenda Hutchings, a journalist-turned-corporate communication specialist in the UAE.
However, Mariamma was known as a media-shy person and mostly avoided interviews and publicity.
Social media tributes
Emiratis and expats also took to social media to offer condolences and pay tributes.
A former GEMS school student, Rijosh Joseph tweeted: “GEMS group loses a true gem. Tributes to #MadamVarkey. Thank you for shaping UAE’s education system. I’ve always been proud to have been educated within a school from GEMS.”
Prominent Emirati businessman, Nasser H Al Sheikh posted on his personal Twitter page: “My heart goes to the Varkey family … may Madam Varkey’s soul rest in peace. A family & an extraordinary individual who’s deeply rooted in the development of #Dubai’s education scene prior to the formation of the #UAE. My sincerest condolences.”