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Mariamma Varkey, the founder of Dubai’s first private school, passed away

Mariamma Varkey, who remembered as a “compassionate, humble and down-to-earth visionary wishing to see her pupils succeed”, was given rich tributes by the education community.

Mariamma, in an affectionate manner called Madam Varkey by her colleagues and teachers, passed away on Wednesday at her Dubai family residence. Expressing grief over her passing, numbers of teachers in the GEMS Education chain said she set the base stone for UAE’s private education system.

Magdalene Anthony, 72-year-old, a retired kindergarten and primary school teacher who taught at the Our Own English High School Dubai from 1977 to 2010, shares her memory about Mariamma Varkey. She said Mariamma Varkey was not just her guide but a woman who made it attainable for her family to flourish in Dubai.

“Three generations of my family have stayed in the GEMS group,” she explained. Her daughter, Betty Antony, is now a Grade 4 and 5 supervisor at Our Own High School, Al Warqa (boys branch), and Betty’s daughter is now a Grade 6 student at Own Own English High School Dubai.

Talking to Khaleej Times over phone from her home in Kerala, Magdalene said: “Her sister (Mrs John) informed us that she passed away on Wednesday. I joined the school on October 10, 1977. The school was then located in Al Bastakiya. It was only later that the campus was shifted to small porter cabins in Karama. I worked for the school for 33 years.” She retired from the school on February 10, 2010. Tearing down as she spoke, she said: “Madam Varkey was a visionary. She was a very sharp person and was able to accurately judge the character of a person just by looking at him/her.” She remembered Madam Varkey walking around the Bastakiya school with a long cane to discipline students. “My children and the rest of my family is doing so well, thanks to her.”

Magdalene’s daughter Betty, who has been teaching at the Our Own High School, Al Warqa (boys branch), for 19 years, said: “When I was a student at the school, Madam Varkey would travel in the same school bus with us. To show that I was studious and to impress her, I would walk up to the front of the bus and ask her about my doubts. Though, actually, I was not that studious.”

“When we moved to the Karama branch of Our Own High School, she would drop in often. She was a very humble person. Anyone could approach her any time as her doors were always open for all,” said Betty.

Thomas Mathew and his wife Shirley, two retired hands, who worked in Our Own English High School, Ajman, recalls the days in the school. Before his appointment, he had received a telegram from Mariamma telling him to make travel arrangements to Sharjah so immigration authorities could process his visa. Mathew still treasures a copy of that telegram.

“Back then, we were very few teachers, so she knew all of us personally. I remember she would monitor the operations of the school and attend special functions,” said Mathew. He added: “She created a lot of opportunities for expatriate teachers like us.”

The teachers also partook in sharing their memories about the yearly Christmas parties “Madam Varkey” would throw at her residence. “They were such lovely, grand parties. We would have raffle draws,” said Zita Devadasan, a retired primary school supervisor of Our Own English High School Sharjah. “I worked with the group from 1989 until 2018. When I was working at Modern High School, I would see her walk around the school quadrangle for her evening walks. She knew all of us personally, and we had such close relations with her,” said Devadasan.

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