Dubai's mega-church produces free meals for 6,000 families in need

St Mary's, which has one of the largest Catholic congregations in the world, helps those most affected by the coronavirus pandemic

More than 6,000 workers and families received free meals from a Dubai church as volunteers rallied to support those affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Meals of Grace campaign began in April with only five volunteers and has since evolved into a dedicated team of 45 people, as well as drawing support from 18 restaurants across the city. The initiative is in supported by local authorities.

The meals are collected from the restaurants and sent to St Mary's Catholic Church, which has one of the largest Catholic congregations in the world, to be distributed to those in need.

Among those to benefit are people put on reduced wages and some residents who have lost their jobs.

The drive was in the spirit of a broader effort started by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai, who called on volunteers to deliver free meals under his Your City Needs You campaign.

“Even though the church was closed in March there were still queues of around 50 or 60 people outside who were asking if we could give them food. They were only looking for something simple like rice or lentils,” said Susan Jose, 39, one of the lead volunteers.

<span>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</span>

“The watchmen at the gates phoned us to let us know about the people in need.”

She said about 200 food parcels, which typically consist of rice, flour, pasta and lentils, were sent out several times a week to support parishioners who had fallen on hard times.

“The initial plan was to provide meals to workers who were stranded here without visas but as time went on we saw many families were also affected and needed our support,” said Ms Jose, an Indian resident.

“It started in March and in the middle of the summer we were sending out food every day. It’s at least several times a week now.”

Even though the church remains closed to the public, she said St Mary’s is doing all it can to help those in need.

“We send out a plea for people to donate what they can during the online masses and people and businesses have been so supportive,” she said.

“We have leaders among the church who go out into their own communities and assess who needs our help.”

In one instance, a donation of 280 meals was sent to help a camp of female bus conductors in Dubai.

Sobia Piara Masih, 44, a Pakistani hairdresser, was among those who received aid from the initiative.

“Because of Covid-19, there have been no customers and almost zero business," she said.

"We had been paid only 50 per cent of our salaries.

“We are very happy and grateful that St Mary's provided us food that gave us the energy to continue with our jobs in these tough times.”

Benjamin Noronha, 54, has been on unpaid leave from the hotel he works for since March.

“The electricity in our accommodation was disconnected two months ago and we were not able to buy food for several weeks,” said the Indian, who has lived in Dubai for the past 25 years.

“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.”

Fr Lennie Connully, parish priest at St Mary’s, said the project would not have been possible without the full support of the Community Development Authority and the government of Dubai, as well as supermarket chain West Zone, which is one of the main sponsors.

“We are doing all we can to support those vulnerable people during this crisis,” he said.

“Proper nutrition is absolutely vital at a challenging time like this and we are delighted that we can provide this service.

“Through this initiative we were also able to assist with the repatriation of several needy workers who have been stranded without jobs or means of survival.”

Vasai Local, an Indian restaurant in Karama, is among the companies providing meals for the project.

“It’s important to give to those who don’t have a lot,” said owner Supriya Fernandes, 42.

“That’s especially the case during the pandemic when so many have been affected.”

She said the restaurant made 100 meals, several times a week, which are collected by the church to be distributed among those in need.