Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be moving to a foreign country to live, let alone a country in the Middle East. Over the 2009 Christmas and New Year’s holidays, my husband Roger and I discussed what we wanted the next part of our life to be like. He thought that before retiring, he would like to do one more airport project but only if he could find something very interesting. I half-jokingly agreed that would be fine but could he try for an exotic location? As usual, Roger came through and soon we were headed to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This blog is a recap of our "leap-of- faith" wanderings around the Middle East and beyond. We joyfully share these expat experiences.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A TUFF Adventure in the UAE with 900 teenagers

The cavernous hall is set to accommodate 900. The band puts finishing touches on a few songs.  Volunteers struggle to hang banners on the stage. A group of helpers hustle to fill 900 “goody” bags. Performers focus inwardly, preparing for the show.

Outside, buses continuously arrive disgorging their boisterous teenage passengers into the courtyard. This mass of adolescent humanity steal clandestine measures of each other as they move into the hall and jockey for front row seats. The noise level is close to ear-splitting.  Roger and I sit in the audience stunned by the scene unfolding around us.

NET Team Band members (l. to r.) Emily, Laura, Becca and Mario
are cheered on by Mickenzie.

A music concert about to begin you may think?  

“We are chaperoning this group for the weekend?” Roger asks incredulously. All I can muster is a catatonic nod. 

NET Team MCs Mike and Sara.
The MCs walk out onto the stage and finally the crowd goes quiet in anticipation.

No, this is not a rock concert but a retreat for Catholic teenagers from around the United ArabEmirates (UAE). We are at St. Anthony of Padua church in Ras Al Khaimah, chaperoning a youth retreat organized by the Vicariate of Southern Arabia (comprised of the UAE, Yemen and Oman). The theme of the retreat is TUFF – Teens United For Faith.

In addition to chaperoning, I am asked to write an article about the event and take photographs during the weekend.  

Teenagers arriving at St. Anthony of Padua.

When one thinks of the UAE, an Arab country in the Middle East, one thinks of Muslims and the Islamic faith. But with the UAE’s immense expatriate population, the RomanCatholic Church has a huge congregation of devout worshipers. Thanks to the benevolence and spirit of tolerance embraced by the rulers of the UAE, Christians are permitted to hold services in their churches and minister to their members.

NET Ireland Traveling Team - front l. to r. Kat, Sasha, Emily, Bev. Laura  
- back l. to r. Mario, Mikenzie, Levi, Michael, Justin.

This high-energy retreat is led by the National Evangelization Team (NET) Ireland, a group of 10 enthusiastic young adults trained to bring the message of Christ’s love to Catholic youth. The Team is in the UAE for two weeks conducting youth rallies and “Encounter Hours” in six of the seven parishes. They also train 65 young adults (ages 18-30) from across the UAE in a new approach to youth ministry – peer to peer vs. teacher to student.

Bev gives testimony to the difference
Jesus' love made in her life.
"One rally we led had 350 primary school children from the Catechism classes singing at the top of their lungs with passion and love for Jesus! They were more excited to be at Mass than Canadians would be at a hockey game.” noted NET Team member Bev. 

The 10-member NET Ireland Team visiting the UAE includes young adults from Ireland, Canada and the USA. Each commits a year to do this missionary work.

Roger and I are the host family for two young women on the NET team, Mickenzie and Laura. We come to admire their dedication and prayerful commitment to this traveling ministry.

You may ask how does a group of young Catholic missionaries find their way to the Muslim country of UAE?

NET Team members with (left 2nd row) Mariya Flynn
and (front row) her brother Joseph and sister Elizabeth.
The answer is the persistence of 14-year old Mariya Miles Flynn, who encounters NET Team in Ireland at the 2012 EucharisticCongress. It is Mariya’s enthusiasm that persuades Bishop Paul Hinder, Vicar Apostolic of Southern Arabia, to invite NET Ireland to the UAE to conduct the youth retreat.

“In Ireland I met members of NET. They explained their missionary work and it really appealed to me because it was so natural and comfortable – not threatening at all. I thought right away that the kids in the UAE would really get this,” she explains. 

On Friday afternoon at 5pm the retreat begins. Upon entering the hall, Bishop Hinder receives thundering applause and cheers from the gathered teens.

“The kids are acting like he is a rock star.” Roger exclaims.

Bishop Hinder with NET Team and retreat attendees.
The Bishop affectionately welcomes the audience and presents them with a challenge.

“I have bestowed the sacrament of Confirmation on most of you in this room. This means you are now with the Lord. What are you going to do with this gift?”

Roger and I are impressed with the Bishop’s enthusiasm. Not only does he attend the entire retreat, he eschews the VIP chair provided for him in the front row and sits among the kids in the audience. His bright pink zucchetto (cap) beams like a beacon in the midst of the dark-haired teens. Judging by the way the teenagers swarm around the Bishop, his presence is much appreciated.

Bishop Hinder's pink zuchetto beams like a beacon among the dark-haired teens.

“When I sit in the front I always feel segregated. The whole crowd is at my back. By sitting in the audience I get to experience a little bit of how it is with them. By being closer to them, I invite them to approach me without fear.” explains the Bishop.

The Bishop eagerly joins in the singing and clapping, although he is a bit reticent with the dancing. We think he is having as much fun as the teenagers.
NET Team‘s drama performance
l. to r. Laura, Justin, Sasha, Levi and Mario.
This dynamic retreat is a well-paced program that builds in intensity with each encounter. Simple but poignant dramas on topics such as God’s forgiveness, looking for love in all the wrong places and accepting God’s plan all entertain the youth; personal testimonies from NET Team members as to the difference Jesus made in their lives are inspirational; small group discussions led by local young adults leaders allow for meaningful open discussions; the rockin’ songs keep the energy level high.  

But the most awesome aspect is the prayerfulness of the NET Team that the retreat teens seem to absorb by osmosis. By Saturday morning’s session, Roger and I both sense a shift in the crowds’ demeanor. They are deeply attentive, more focused and respectful while still having a great time. The concluding Mass celebrated by the Bishop is a devout ending to an inspired weekend.

Bishop Hinder celebrated the Mass for the teens
at the end of the retreat.

Thomas and Kevin
from St. Michael's in Sharjah.

Thomas, age 14, from St. Michael’s in Sharjah says, “This is the best retreat ever. I like the dramas the best. This is an experience I will not forget.”    His friend Kevin decided to come to the retreat after experiencing the NET Team’s rally at his school.

The highlight of the retreat is a panel discussion. The panel is comprised of Bishop Hinder, NET Team members Mickenzie and Levi, Monsignor Francis Jameson with the Vicariate of Southern Arabia, Thushara Zachariasa who ministers to youth in St. Francis in Jebel Ali, Sister Elizabeth Fernandez a pastoral minister at St. Michaels’s in Sharjah, Ariel and Christina Atabug volunteer Catechists at St. Josephs’ in Abu Dhabi, and panel MC Pervis De Souza Catechist and coordinator of Children’s Liturgy of the Word at St. Joseph’s.

Panel l. to r. Monsignor Francis, Thurshara Zacharias,
Sister Elizabeth Fernandez, Bishop Hinder, Ariel and Christina Arabug
and NET Team members Mickenzie and Levi.

The panel challenges the audience to submit any questions they want. The teens rise the occasion and approach the stage placing their written questions in the “question” box.

Subjects range from fearing the Lord, to managing peer pressure, to handling difficult relationships with parents, to confession and sexuality. All are answered straightforwardly.

“For me the key moment of the weekend was the panel discussion. It was from the youth’s reaction to certain questions that I knew they were really listening and they realized that I understood their concerns.” said Bishop Hinder.

NET Team member Justin (center back row) withsome of the boys at the TUFF retreat.
To conclude, the NET Team challenges the teens to look deep into their hearts to find out what God wants them to do with their lives. To keep the retreat energy alive, NET TEAM offers four tools:
1) through prayer, have conversations with God to deepen your relationship;
2) frequently receive the sacraments of the Eucharist and Confession to wipe away distractions that keep you from God;
3) surround yourself with friends who also want to deepen their relationship with God and,
4) follow Jesus’ example of service to others through simple acts of kindness.

The chaperoning mission becomes a breeze for Roger and I as soon as we find out that our assignment is to chaperone the teens during the actual retreat which does not include monitoring the boys and girls throughout the night. Whew!

Retreat attendees at prayer.
Roger sums up our weekend so well, “It’s remarkable that 900 teenagers willingly travel long distances and happily give up their weekend to listen to young adults talk about developing a better relationship with God.  This is my first experience attending a religious retreat . . .  it will be hard to top!”

Indeed, the NET Team succeeds in the impossible task of capturing the attention and energy of 900 teenagers for two days. I believe this based on the prayerful attitude of the teenagers and the long lines to go to confession. 

And what did NET Team think of the UAE experience?

NET Team member Levi with retreat participants.
NET Team members Levi, Emily and Laura agreed that,  “We were expecting the Catholic community to be repressed, limited or not allowed to express their faith. What our Team learned is that the Catholic Church is much more alive and vibrant in the UAE than in many places around the world. “ 

Alleluia  . . .  Alleluia . . . Alleluia

Postscript  . . . .

NET Ireland Traveling Team members visit theSheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.
NET Ireland . . . every year young people apply to become NET Ireland Team members. They commit a year to the ministry of bringing Christ to the youth of Ireland. 

In a year’s time they reach over 10,000 youth. During 2013-14, NET Ireland is operating three NET Teams in Ireland and two in Scotland. One of the Irish teams is a traveling team which came to the UAE.

NET Ireland has sister organizations in NET USA, NETCanada, NET Australia, and NET Uganda.      


  1. Katie,
    I cannot stop smiling! What a joyful experience...As always, thank you for sharing!

    1. So glad you enjoyed . . it was a very unexpected weekend to say the least!

  2. Although I am not Catholic, I think its is fabulous that young people are getting together to look up to God for inspiration to live kindly and effectively in this fast paced world not always so easy to navigate.

    Great article Katie!

  3. Hi Katie,
    What a wonderful thing for you and Roger to do! I bet it was a wonderful weekend ;) I am still feeling the lump in my throat as I remember one of the most moving experiences in my life... a youth retreat that I went to when I was a teenager called 'Challenge' (I think it started in Detroit in the 60s). The Challenge movement is similar to NET with "evangelization by peers, talks with personal testimony followed by sharings in small groups, joy of friendship, songs, prayers, etc." I knew most of the girls on my retreat as many went to the same high school. They would tug their earlobes at each other as they passed through the hallways, which I eventually learned was a secret sign among 'Challengers' of a hug being given! The following year I was one of the table leaders. It was a tumultuous time for me. I was in high school and dealing with my father's death and that first weekend did strengthen my faith. It's heartwarming to see so many teenagers gathering in love and sharing. It makes me believe that there is hope for their future of a more peaceful and harmonious world.

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