Mr Saji Cherian creates history in the UAE by becoming the first non-Muslim to build a mosque for his workers and local residents in Fujairah. The 49-year-old Keralite, who landed in Fujairah in 2003 with just a few dirhams, spent AED 1.3 million for the mosque at the East Ville Real Estate complex at Al Hayl industrial area in Fujairah. The mosque can accommodate 250 worshippers at a time besides a courtyard to accommodate another 750. Asian Lite’s Iqbal Azeez meets Mr Saji Cherian … reports Asian Lite News.
Tell us about your family and education?
My schooling was completed at Pathiyoor Panchayat High School in Kerala. After that, I did an electrician course in ITI (Industrial Training Institute). I have four brothers and a sister. My father used to take contract works and also did other businesses later in life. I was not a very bright student, but seeing the hard work from my father, I wanted to do well in my life. I got married at 22 and it was a love marriage. My wife is a big support. She has been by my side during the highs and lows in my career.
You are well known in the media as a person who built a mosque. Is there anything more than that?
I view myself as a Malayali and as an employee in the UAE. From the time I arrived in the UAE in 2003 till today, I go to work at the same time as my employees do and finish work when they do. I have 240 employees in total, some do labour jobs like cleaning while others do office jobs, but I view all of them with same level of respect. I do not see them any different. I am always there for them to talk to me. I feel that I am one among them. I feel guilty if I am not able to reach here by 6.30am, even if I sleep by 3am, I make it a point to reach here by 6am. This is how I have maintained my lifestyle till today, and it will be so till the end. I used to tell my family that when death comes I want to be at my work place, as I wish to die while I am working.
It seems that you have maintained your values and ethics throughout your expat life. People are noticing your good deeds very lately. Is it true?
Yes, absolutely, I always keep some core values no matter what. If someone comes to me for help regarding business or personal issues, I will see to it that they get what they need. If they need a license for example, I see to it that I myself go to the municipality and take the license for them. Neither did I have a lot of money when I came here the first time nor did my father have a big business for me to be a partner. I have started from zero, taking a loan from Federal Bank in Kerala to do construction. Back then I didn’t know much about construction, I had 15 lakhs with me and I thought a building could be constructed by taking additional 20 lakhs loan from the bank by showing the papers for the land that I owned. By the time the first floor was completed I ran out of money and didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, my neighbour Gopalakrishnan, owner of Elemecs Wedding Castle, was running a business in Dubai. I met him when I was running a restaurant in India and he needed a JCB for a building and I was able to arrange one. He was the one who helped me in coming to UAE, by arranging a visit visa for me.
Tell us about your experience after arriving in the UAE?
My friends always ask me to write down my life experiences, as there is enough stories to make one or two movies. Some people think that we can only do business with huge sums of money, however I have proved otherwise with my business here. On the strength of that visit visa I told my family that I am leaving for Bombay to search for a job. I had two friends while I was running a restaurant in India, Prasad and Sreekumar, who used to help me. I took them also along with me, as I didn’t want them to suffer when I close the restaurant. After arriving in Bombay, both of them got a job there. I came to Bombay with 30,000 rupees from which 10,000 each I gave to them. I was left with 10,000 and with that I boarded the Emirates flight bound to Dubai.
When I arrived in Dubai at around 10pm. Everything was new to me, there was no one for me to call or receive me at the airport. I sat there in the airport for hours not sure what to do, then at around 2pm, I took a taxi and asked the taxi driver to drop me to the cheapest hotel. He told me that there are hotel rooms in Deira for 100 dirhams. When I changed the 10,000 rupees, I was left with 630 dirhams. This was the investment that I had with me. I also had a new bag, passport, shoes, shirt and pants which almost all Malayalees bring when they first come to UAE. I still have these with me, tomorrow if my business fails and I have to go back, I can happily do so in the same fashion that I came to UAE.
Tell us about your business in the UAE, what were the challenges faced?
The next day I went to Deira taxi stand and from there I took a bus to Fujairah, as I had overheard people saying there are good opportunities for doing business in Fujairah. I took a room in Fujairah for 100 dirhams. My roommate there was a heavy drinker and did not bother whether I had food or not. Some days due to the shortage of money, I had to starve. My first visit visa ran out and I had to take second one with the help of Mr Anil working in Gulf Garage. At this time, an Arab gentleman gave me the visa to start the business in construction and the company was called ‘Al Durrah’. The Arab took over the business from me in 2006 and I was back to zero.
I had started a building material company a while ago and I moved there. After much hard work, we had many trailers and the business was flourishing by 2012. I made some investments back in India during this time. Things again took a downturn soon afterwards, as many cheques were returned with customers unable to make payment. My family was scared whether I would be ending up in jail. Again an Arab offered me some land to buy and I bought the land and after much efforts I built a building with 100 rooms which was taken by one company. In three and a half years, I paid back all my dues and the compound flourished with many buildings, saloon, laundry and supermarket. In three and a half years I have created assets of 64 million and the compound has 58 buildings.
How about the experiences in Fujairah?
Fujairah has a lot of business opportunities. I have not seen any place having such opportunities. Even people from Dubai come here searching for job. It should be noted that Fujairah is a place where you can work and go home and sleep, this is the routine here. So I encourage those coming to Fujairah to stay and tell them that you won’t get a place better than Fujairah to do business.
Tell us about the Mosque that you have built in Fujairah?
I didn’t have much money in my bank account when I undertook the project. As I said before, I am like an employee here and depend upon the business to provide the funds. If any payment comes late, all of us feel the pinch. I still have to find money to arrange for Iftar during Ramadan. But I am determined to keep going and find finances for the project. I have also built a convention centre to provide food for my workers who come to the mosque. If we give money to people, they will never get satisfied, but if you give food to people definitely they will get satisfied. I didn’t build the mosque to get any publicity. But when some of my friends heard about this story, they invited the media to cover it.
Do you have any role model in your life?
I do not have any role model. However, my children tell me that I am their role model.
Were you involved in any other projects?
Before 2013, I have built a Christian church in Dibba. I didn’t have much money back then but when I saw that the church was being run in a house with a family and it had only one room, bathroom and kitchen, I felt it should be improved, so in two months I built a church.
Do you have any similar projects in the future?
When I built a mosque, some Hindu workers came and asked me to arrange a room for them to pray as well. I told them that if I get an approval I would provide so. I joked with them that if I get an approval we will have the ‘Athan’ (Islamic call for prayer) at around 5am, and then we will have ‘Suprabatham’ (a collection of hymns or verses recited early morning by Hindus), to wake all of you up very early. I believe that God is one, but we are created in different religions. God is same for everyone, and I wish to see a world in which everyone pray together at a single place.
What is your advice to people who are engaged in similar community service?
God has given us a short life so after we die, people should say good things about us. We should not earn the displeasure of others. We should not fight with each other on the basis of religion. In my childhood, I have not known about bombs and explosions. I have studied about World Wars but have never experienced any war. Nowadays we can see in the media entire countries are getting destroyed and even small children are suffering. Many historic buildings are being destroyed during these conflicts which should have been saved for future generations. Children do not have any religion; then why are they being targeted? Every day when we go to sleep, it is as if we die, the next day we get a new life. So value this short life and take the opportunity to love all human beings regardless of religion.