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Dubai parish steps up to help foreign workers stranded in pandemic

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- The coronavirus pandemic has hit thousands of foreign workers hard in the glitzy Gulf emirate of Dubai, leaving them jobless and starving. But one of the largest Catholic congregations in the world, found in Dubai, has stepped up as "Good Samaritans" ministering to the needy, and now it hopes to bless even more during this Christmas season.

"Although St. Mary's Catholic Church has been closed since March, every second day we got calls from the security guards at the church gates saying people are just asking for simple food or milk products, because so many laborers lost their jobs and all they wanted was some food," explained Susan Jose, who is responsible for the parish's Samaritans outreach ministry.

She spoke about how her church got involved in several food distribution projects to help workers left without work and destitute in a city where spectacular wealth and deprivation coexist.

"Our parish is large, with about 150,000 people," Jose said of St. Mary's, which has eight priests ministering to congregants from India, the Philippines, Lebanon and several Arab countries, in addition to Ukraine, China, Japan and other countries. Some 53 languages are represented by St. Mary's parishioners.

"Father Lennie Connully asked for needed food and essentials to go out to the poor and needy. Food just started coming in from various sponsors and people who helped us out with this," recounted Jose, a native of India.

"At that time, there was a complete lockdown in Dubai. We were a very small team, hardly four or five people who were permitted to go out and drive our cars, but slowly, as restrictions lifted, we engaged more volunteers — about 45 — to deliver 200 food parcels every day," she said of the huge effort taking food to camps housing foreign workers.

"We started this campaign of giving provisions for a month for 6,500 people in the first stage, called the 'Box of Hope,'" said Father Connully, a Capuchin Franciscan who is also from India. For the past six years, Father Connully has coordinated the team of priests at St. Mary's. Catholics form 80 percent of the Christian community in Dubai.

"We did whatever we could to satisfy their hunger," Father Connully said. "Then came the 'Meals of Grace.' A hot meal was served. There are people who have no facilities to cook. They have to go to a restaurant to eat, for which they have no money. So, our people gathered food from the restaurants, went to the camps, and served up the hot meals."

For example, a donation of 280 meals was sent to help a camp of female bus conductors and bus drivers in Dubai.

"We have leaders among the church who go out into their own communities and assess who needs our help," Jose explained.

For almost 10 months, Frank Friolo, a Filipino cleaner, said he has tried to find work; sometimes he is able to take on part-time jobs. "I have struggled to earn enough for food and room rent. But the church and the Good Samaritans helped to provide me with food during the COVID pandemic. I'm so glad and grateful," he said.

Another man, Benjamin Noronha, an Indian who has worked for many years in Dubai, but who has been on unpaid leave from his hotel job in the city, expressed what many of the aid recipients feel.

"We are grateful to St. Mary's for the boxes of food and medicine they provided. It has given me hope while I search for a new job," said Noronha.

"We've now organized a new initiative, 'Santa Cause' for the Christmas holiday. It's the cause of giving out and reminiscent of the song about the 'Twelve Days of Christmas,'" Jose said excitedly.

Once St. Mary's receives government approval as it has for its other distributions, "we're going to reach out to 12 different needy camps of 100 people each, so about 1,200 people will be covered," she explained. "We will go out with food and provisions for an entire month and also hope to give people the feel of Christmas. Some people are without their families at this time."

The church plans to give hampers stuffed with food, toiletries, everyday items, and some Christmas gifts. But in some cases, it will also go that extra mile.

"For instance, a man in the camp whose daughter is getting married cannot travel to Pakistan, so we would like to give him an air ticket. We would like for them to wish for what they want and, if it is possible within our community's reach, we would like to give something to these poor people for Christmas," Jose said.

"We give thanks to God, the government here and all the volunteers that support us," she emphasized.

"Through this initiative we are also able to assist with the repatriation of several needy workers who have been stranded without jobs or means of survival," said Father Connully.

"There are so many stories that are really heartbreaking. A person working for so many years suddenly loses their job and gets into debt. The debt grows and he is not able to pay and the bank is after him. We listen and help them out," said the priest. "We can't pay the bank, but we can speak with the bank to give some consideration. Sometimes they bring the debt down or even waive it."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020