The Comboni Missionary Sisters have been in Dubai, one of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), since 1977. In the last two decades, however, the city became a symbol of grandiosity and extravaganza with its colossal and fanciful buildings. The discovery of oil in 1966 led to a massive influx of foreign workers, quickly expanding the city and bringing in international oil interests. Although Dubai’s economy was built on the oil industry, today its main revenues are from tourism, real estate, and financial services.
Visitors are mostly impressed by the modern infrastructure. The city’s skyline is dominated by skyscrapers and cranes. About 30,000, or 24% of the world’s 125,000 construction cranes, are currently operating in Dubai. Some areas of the thriving city seem to be a building yard. The expatriate workforce outnumbers the Emiratis. They are the ones sweating to put up the fanciful towers. But, Dubai’s ostentatious investments have so high a price. At the end of 2010, the city’s property market experienced a major hiccup as a result of the worldwide economic downturn and it had to be helped by neighbouring Abu Dhabi with $10 billion to pay off its debts.
The Sisters work mainly at St. Mary’s CatholicChurch, Dubai’s only parish, served by Capuchin Fathers. They cater to the spiritual needs of the many expatriates, especially from Asia. It is a sample of cultural and linguistic diversity. Sister Luciana Zonta, 68, is the superior of the versatile Comboni community. She arrived in Dubai in October 2007, after having served in Ethiopia and Eritrea for 13 years. Together with Sr. Josephine Martin, she is in charge of the Christian adult formation, particularly, for those who wish to become Catholics or to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. Sister Josephine and Sister Claudia coordinate the catechism office which supervises all the catechesis and the formation of catechists.
Every Friday – the weekly holiday in all Muslim countries – there are more than 4,000 children coming for catechism classes. 200 volunteer catechists are involved in imparting Catholic instruction to the youth. As many as five hundred children receive the First Communion and as many youth are confirmed yearly. Around 30 adults are also baptized every year. They are usually from Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, China, Malaysia… and hail from religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism or Sikhism. All of them are foreign migrant workers. The law forbids the instruction and baptism of Muslims. Islam is the official state religion of the UAE. Therefore, Christian pastoral can only be conducted inside the parish compound which is surrounded by high walls. And discreetly! The church, which is not seen from the street, has neither a tower nor bells, nor is topped by the traditional cross – to avoid any sign that might irk local sensibilities!
In such a cosmopolitan and controversial context, no wonder that there’s job insecurity, loneliness, stress and depression which affect the families and, sometimes, cause their breakdown. The Sisters are attentive to such dramas. Sr. Magdalen Lonergan worked in Kenya as a nurse and midwife for 16 years. She also had the opportunity to train as a counsellor. In the past 5 years, she has been providing therapy to couples experiencing tensions. A sign of the importance of such a job is the remarkable decrease in the number of requests for matrimonial annulments in the Emirate.
Sister Anne Marie is the headmistress of St. Mary’s Catholic High School located on the church’s compound. It is attended by 2,100 children of over 40 nationalities and of different religions background. English is the medium of instruction, but Arabic is compulsory for everybody. The school has been teaching the Catholic faith since its inception in 1968, the only school in the country allowed to do that. Sr. Anna Magdalena is the Bible teacher. Besides, she is involved in youth ministry both in the school and in the parish.
The owner of the school is the Vicariate Apostolic of Arabia which, at the moment, is headed by a Swiss Capuchin bishop, Paul Hinder, who resides in Abu Dhabi. Even though the fees are very affordable to the working community, the school is very well-equipped. It has three science labs and two computer labs for senior and junior students. Priority for admission is given to children who cannot afford enrolling in other private schools – often the children of single mothers and/or with illnesses in the family. Another criterion is to have a fair balance between countries and communities. The staff members – who must be approved by the Ministry of Education – represent different nationalities. There’s academic and discipline seriousness. Sister Anne Marie is satisfied with the school’s achievements: “We have good results, a good reputation and a good standing with the Ministry.” The fact is that their graduates are easily admitted by the best universities of Canada, USA, England or Australia.