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Mariamma Varkey, Giant of Education, Dies Age 89, leaving a Million Children’s Lives Transformed as her Legacy

“Mariamma Varkey moved to Dubai with her husband in 1959.

Driven by an enduring passion for education, she started tens of schools with thousands of students inside and Outside UAE.

Mariamma recently passed away, leaving behind a legacy of education in UAE and beyond.”

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE. Ruler of Dubai.


“I am most grateful for these kind words from His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, commemorating my beloved mother and her pioneering role in furthering education in the United Arab Emirates. My family and I consider it a most gracious tribute in honour of her. My mother loved this land, its leaders and people, and considered it her home and second country. We will continue and live up to her pioneering legacy and embody her firm belief in the power of education to change the lives of generations and make the world a better place.”

Sunny Varkey. Founder and Chairman. GEMS Education. Founder and Trustee. Varkey Foundation.



“It is with great sadness that we share the news of the passing of Madam Mariamma Varkey, grandmother and great-grandmother, educator, pioneer and humanitarian.

Madam Varkey was a visionary educator who believed that every child deserved a great education.

Driven by her enduring passion for teaching, and together with her husband, she built a legacy of education and learning in the UAE and beyond.

This legacy will live on in the hearts of not only her family, but also every student that has passed through a Gems classroom in the past 60 years.

Madam Varkey will first and foremost be warmly remembered as a beloved mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.

Her humanitarian contributions focused on the learning development of girls and the advancement and recognition of teachers, with her legacy rooted in her unrelenting belief in the power of quality education to better society.

Even after she left Kerala, India in 1959, she continued to support and serve underprivileged communities in India.”

The Varkey Family. 31st march 2021.


“Your education can decide your future.”

Mariamma Varkey. 1932 – 2021.


Wednesday, 31st March 2021.

Mariamma Varkey, Educationalist, Co-founder of GEMS Schools, humanitarian, Christian and wife of the late K.S. Varkey, English Teacher and Banker, has died at the age of 89 years in Dubai, the emirate she came to love and call her home. Mrs Varkey was fondly known as both Ammachi (“Mother”) and Madam Varkey.

She leaves behind her a legacy in education that has transformed the lives of a million children.

She is survived by her adoring son, Sunny Varkey, daughter, Susan Matthews; her grandchildren, Dino Varkey and Jay Varkey, and much loved great grandchildren.

All her children and grandchildren have followed careers in education, such was her impact on those closest to her.

Sunny Varkey is the Founder and Chairman of GEMS Education.

Susan Matthews is an educationalist and leader in Pre-School education.

Dino Varkey and Jay Varkey are both Group Executive Directors of GEMS Education.

The funeral of Mariamma Varkey will be held at Jebel Ali Marthoma church on Monday. The church is the family church of the Varkey family, its having been started in 1969 by 57 members of Our Own English High School in Dubai. The Maktoum family has played a benevolent role through the years  in providing land on which the church was built.

Mariamma Varkey’s story in education began with her founding, with her late husband K. S. Varkey, of GEMS Our Own English High School in 1968 of which her son wrote:

““The Our Own School was the goose that laid the golden egg for us.”

Sunny Varkey. Founder and Chairman. GEMS Education. Founder. Varkey Foundation.

Our SchoolsCompared review of GEMS Our Own English High School can be found here.

The founding of Our Own English High School followed just seven years after her moving to Dubai from Kerala, India, where she had first developed her love of teaching English and formed her ambition of a career founded on the transformation of children’s lives through education. From a young age, Mariamma Varkey believed passionately in teaching and education as the world’s most powerful forces for good. The founding of the school and its early years sedimented her links with Dubai’s royal family through her role as teacher, and later friend.

Six decade’s later, following her founding of the relatively, at least by GEMS standards today, tiny first GEMS school in Dubai, GEMS Education operates the largest school system in the Middle East with more than 50 GEMS schools  educating 130,000 plus students with revenues of US$ 1.01 billion.

Globally, GEMS Education is the largest operator of private kindergarten-to-grade-12 schools in the world with a valuation in excess of US$4 billion.

It was in 1980 that Sunny Varkey, her beloved son, helped her build a purpose-built landmark new school for Our Own children, which had long outgrown the small school needs of its founding role and which would go on to spark a revolution in UAE education that has defined GEMS transformational role in educating children in the emirates, and globally, ever since.

Today, Mariamma Varkey, also leaves a legacy in the annual GEMS Education Annual Teacher Prize and Mariamma Varkey Award for Inspiring and Distinguished Education founded in 2016 in her honour:

“It is with great sadness that I announce the death of my mother, Mariamma.

Though she may be gone, her spirit of peace and tolerance will live on within me always.

“I am proud that the respect with which my mother and father were held was the inspiration for the Global Teacher Prize, which we set up to shine a spotlight on the work that teachers do every day to transform lives.

I intend to continue to honour my mother’s great legacy by doing everything I can to ensure all the world’s children receive their birthright of a good education.”

Sunny Varkey. Founder and Chairman. GEMS Education. Founder and Trustee. Varkey Foundation.


Mariamma Varkey obituary by Sunny Varkey, Founder, GEMS Education

Her philanthropy and humanitarianism also finds its voice through the commitment of Sunny Varkey, and his wife Sherly Varkey, to ‘give away’ half their net worth during their lifetime to worthy causes related to education as part of their work with the Bill and Melinda Gates 2010 “Giving Pledge” project to transform the world through kindness:

I am humbled by the generosity of those with whom I share this pledge and am honoured to share in this endeavour with them. I am also humbled by the work of Bill and Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffett, themselves wonderful champions of education. They have inspired us to commit to the Giving Pledge and we hope in our own small way we will encourage others to do so also.

I have been fortunate that I grew up in a family where charity was ingrained in us from a very early age. We were immigrants to a new country, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Even, when my father earned a small amount, a large percentage was shared with the community we lived in, sometimes at the cost of our own comfort. To this day, our underlying philosophy remains that good giving ‘pinches’, meaning that the sacrifice you make, has to be felt, else, the act remains just another financial transaction in our lives; and therein lies the appeal of the Giving Pledge to us.

I was also lucky that my parents were school-teachers. They always placed a great emphasis on the value of education. While perhaps I didn’t live up to their expectations as a student, I saw the impact they had on people’s lives. I have always believed that education is key to fixing so many of the world’s greatest problems: violence, poverty and health. It all starts with education.

These two pillars of charity and education have always guided me, and out of them came the Varkey Foundation, to change lives through education around the world. We, particularly, focus on capacity building interventions for teachers and school leaders, and championing their work through initiatives such as the Global Teacher Prize. Everyone deserves a great teacher. Through the Giving Pledge we hope to take these efforts to a greater level.”

Sunny Varkey. Founder and Chairman. GEMS Education. Founder and Trustee. Varkey Foundation.

Mariamma Varkey, ultimately, however, will be remembered not for the billion dollar valuation of GEMS, but, much more beautifully, for her profound impact on generations of children and the many lives that would have taken such different courses had she and her late husband not made that pioneering leap of faith in travelling to Dubai in 1959 to change the world through teaching.

She was loved in Dubai by the Royal family and its people who many years ago wrapped its arms around her as one of its own and a human being whose actions played such a fundamental part in its own story and development. She will be genuinely missed – and Dubai will not be the same without her.

Her children, grand children and great grandchildren now have the near impossible task of living up to her ideals in education.

They have shown themselves, through each twist and turn, the measure of her vision to date – and it is all of us, young and old, who benefit.

WH Auden wrote in his beautiful poem “Stop the clocks”:

“The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;

Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;

Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;

For nothing now can ever come to any good.”

For all the sorrow she leaves, Mariamma Varkey, rarely, also leaves the joy of a world in a much better place through her actions – one filled with stars to bursting – and one too in which her students, and those many millions of GEMS students who will follow, will hold alive her promise to build a kinder world, one marked by goodness, hope and compassion in equal measure.

© 2021. All rights reserved.

About The Author
Jon Westley
Jon Westley is the Editor of and UK. You can email him at jonathanwestley [at]
  • Khawla hilal
    April 5, 2021 at 1:29 pm

    God bless Mrs Mariamma
    She was wonderful.
    Thank you for your tribute exploring how she motivated and led the educational journey of countless thousands of children and students at GEMS in Dubai since 1959.
    Regards Khawla Hilal Ahmed Nasser Lootah

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