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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Residents turn to church for counselling on pressures of life in Dubai

The numbers seeking help are so high that St Francis' Catholic Church is training volunteers to help with counselling

Father Reinhold Sahner, parish priest of St Francis of Assisi Church in Dubai, counsels residents on their familial and financial problems. Pawan Singh / The National 
Father Reinhold Sahner, parish priest of St Francis of Assisi Church in Dubai, counsels residents on their familial and financial problems. Pawan Singh / The National 

Religious leaders in Dubai are undergoing counselling training to keep up with an influx of residents turning to them for advice.

Father Reinhold Sahner, the parish priest at St Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Jebel Ali, revealed that many members of the congregation have come forward to seek help as they struggle with the pressures of life in Dubai.

In Christian religions a parish is a designated district that is under the care of a priest or a pastor. They are responsible for the spiritual care of the people in their parish — or parishioners — and therefore often become a source of counsel for them.

“One of the most common problems we hear from parishioners is they are having problems with their marriages because their partner is back home with the family while they are working here alone,” he said.

“Long-distance marriages can be really challenging as they lead to loneliness and, in some cases, despair.”

Mr Sahner said is not uncommon for people who are far-away from their partners, and lonely, to develop feelings for someone else.

“It is hard to have a close and intimate married life when the two parties are living in separate countries,” he said.

“It is often the case that the one who is living in this country falls in love with someone here. It is not unusual that the partner back home falls in love with another person as well.”

It is not just the sense of familiarity that has some turning to the church for counselling. Many parishioners are facing financial difficulties and cannot always afford to pay for professional counselling, on top of their existing debts.

“Loss of work is a major concern,” he said.

He said the increase in finance trouble was directly related to an increase in parish numbers in recent years.

“We have found a lot of people are moving to this side of Dubai in the last couple of years,” he said.

“A lot of parishioners have left areas like Downtown Dubai because the rents are more affordable here and it is closer to work.”

Raising a family, far from their home country, and maintaining a strong sense of identity is another issue that has prompted residents to seek counselling from the church.

“When parents are well rooted in their own culture it can be difficult to raise children in Dubai, which is a totally different world and culture,” said Mr Sahner.

“It is a challenge to bridge the cultural differences and be a citizen of Dubai while maintaining the identity from back home.”

The workplace is a major source of stress for many, said Mr Sahner, adding that arguments with co-workers and quarrels with the boss are the most common complaints.

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But it is not just the priests at St Francis’ who are there to help parishioners with their problems.

“The counselling is an essential part of our work and it is not only done by us fathers,” he said.

“In the last three years we have educated church volunteers in counselling. In many ways, they go through the same problems and situations as the people seeking counselling whereas us fathers can be a little isolated from those issues.”

That said, there is a still large proportion of the parish who insist on sharing their problems with a priest.

“People come and talk to the priest because they know it is a little bit like confession,” he said.

“For some people there is a large portion of shame in admitting they have a problem which is why they might prefer to seek out a priest to confide in.”

Counselling professionals in Dubai say they are not surprised to hear that residents are increasingly seeking such help.

Farah Lodi, chief executive of Moving Forward Consulting Services, said the absence of an extended family for some residents can lead to strong feelings of isolation.

“The nature of expatriate living means that couples leave behind their primary emotional support structure at home,” she said.

“They don't typically have their parents, aunts, uncles or old friends around to talk to or rely upon in times of need. This can lead to a feeling of isolation and even helplessness.”

She said it was not just expatriate couples, who are living in separate countries, that are feeling a strain on the marriage.

“Some professions such as airline crew, spend prolonged days away from home. This can be a strain on both partners,” she said.

Life coach Sujit Sukumaran said that the pressure of being seen to maintain a certain lifestyle is a major cause of stress for people in Dubai.

“I think expectations, keeping up with the Joneses, so to say, an inadequate understanding of finances and a lack of clear and earnest communication are key factors,” he said.

“It is interesting that people who don't wish to confide in their spouse would rather do so with a therapist.”

He said that, while distance can a key factor in problems that married couples face, it is seldom the only issue.

“Many variables come into play. I have seen cases where distance has been the game-changer, especially where the partners think that remittances or money alone and not an active involvement is the only thing required on their part to be a good spouse,” he said.

While the Catholic Church is famously strict on not permitting divorces, other non-Muslim couples are permitted to get divorced through the church of their own faith in Abu Dhabi, rather than having to go through the courts.

The law was changed last year so that couples can receive mediation, out of court, with one of their religious leaders in an attempt to facilitate reconciliation or divorce.

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