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Sunny Varkey and family members attend the funeral service of Mariamma Varkey in Dubai on Monday. Image Credit:

Dubai: Family members bid a tearful adieu to the UAE’s pioneering educator Mariamma Varkey of GEMS Education at a funeral service before she was laid to rest in Jebel Ali in Dubai on Monday.

Due to COVID-19 safety protocol, the Varkey family of Sunny Varkey, chairman and founder of the global education group, organised the live streaming of the service in English and Malayalam conducted by the priests of Dubai Mar Thoma Parish.

Mariamma, who died aged 89 on Wednesday, was a former teacher from Kerala in India who moved to Dubai with her husband K.S. Varkey in 1959.

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They founded Our Own English High School in 1968, the first school under the global education group which was later established by the couple’s son Sunny in 2000.

Only the family members could be seen attending the funeral service held at the Holy Trinity Church, while thousands watched it online.

Sunny’s son, Dino Varkey, made an inspiring speech about his grandmother, often tearing up with emotions, just like his father and other family members who were seated as he spoke.

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Courageous step

Dino, who is the CEO of GEMS Education, said his grandmother’s loss was a loss for everyone around, not just their family’s.

“Our family has taken many steps over the last six decades — steps that we hope have impacted the lives of generations of students, families, communities here in Dubai, the UAE and beyond for the better ... And yet none of it would have been possible without that first step taken by my grandfather and grandmother 62 years ago. That was the step that mattered.”

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Dino Varkey speaks at the funeral service of Mariamma Varkey

“They sacrificed all that they knew and all that they loved to make a better life for their family. And I realise that the courageous step that they took was to make a better life for all families [of students] through the undeniable power of education.”

“My grandfather was the intellectual, the mind that drives our purpose. My grandmother was the teacher … the teacher who inspired a global teacher prize, the heart and soul that drives our purpose even to this day … the foundation and anchor of the values that we strive to inculcate in our students each and every day. The Global Teacher Prize is an annual US$1 million award by the Varkey Foundation to an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession.

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. Sunny Varkey and Dino comfort each other at the funeral service of Mariamma Varkey in Dubai on Monday.

Outpouring of support

He said the Varkey family has been overwhelmed with the outpouring of support following her passing.

“We have never felt more connected or drawn more strength from the UAE than in this moment. Our gratitude to the leaders of this nation cannot be measured in words. We are humbled by all the messages of love and respect from thousands upon thousands … young and old — a simple reminder of the power of a teacher whose sole purpose was to empower humanity with love, faith, character and knowledge.”

He revealed that Mariamma had faced a tough time with multiple strokes over the last five years and his mother and nurses used to look after her.

“Even in her struggle, she made us all stronger, especially her son and daughter.

"She was tough, she was strong, the disciplinarian that we all knew her to be. She was also right …”

“In every interaction that my grandmother would have whether it was a driver of one of our school buses or a head of state, she was consistent … and demonstrated the same warmth and love to everyone as if they were her own. She was a force of nature. A giant.”

He also recollected the values that his grandmother had asked him to hold throughout his life.

“Your spirit lives on in the hearts and the minds of each and every one of us, the generations of students, past, present and future. Rest in Peace. We will carry on your legacy in this world. What a woman! What a life! What more can I say!,” he said as he wished her to rest in peace.

Unbreakable bond with church

Rev. Siju C Philip, vicar of the church, said Mariamma was a pioneer in every sense of the term and the church has been indebted to the family of Mariamma and her husband who were its founding members.

“In the early days, when we did not have a place to worship, the [Varkey] family came forward and offered Our Own English School in Bur Dubai. It was there that Dubai Mar Thoma Parish was born. So, in many ways it was not only the children who benefited from Mrs Varkey’s vision. It was also the church.”

That led to an unbreakable bond between the church and family which got extended to different organisations of the church.

“In the early days, when the church organised vacation bible schools for children, the schools run by the Varkey family were open for us. When children needed to be taken to camp sites, the buses run by the schools were offered to us,” he recollected.

“If our children love God today, Mrs Varkey, working from behind the scene has played a large role in it,” he added.

Several people who watched the service were seen posting online tributes to the matriarch of the Varkey family.