By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley has asked an Iraqi woman known as the “Mother Theresa” of Iraq, to start a new order, the Daughters of Mary, Our Lady of Nazareth.
According to The Boston Herald, the diminutive Sr. Olga Yaqob, 44, is a power house of faith who has been evangelizing youth across the country from her post as chaplain at Boston University. Standing at a height of a mere four feet, nine inches, and wearing a powder-blue habit and white wimple, she bears a striking resemblance to the young Mother Theresa
“I always say that people left the church, but I don’t think they have left the faith,” said Sister, who is now charged with starting one of the first Boston orders in more than 30 years. “I feel my call is just what I have done at BU for 10 years . . . to take the church to them.”
Sister Olga’s story is gripping. According to the New Jersey Times, she was only 13 when the war with Iran began and turned her normal life into one where survival and the fear of dying took precedence over everything else. She said neighbors would wake up in the morning and check on each other to see who had died during the night.
“At that age you normally dream about high school, college, what you will do with your life, but I couldn’t dream,” she said. “I didn’t know if I would live to go to college. I felt pain and it was a mystery to me, why people had to go to war and die. For the next 25 years of my life I never found the answer.”
Only a few years after the war ended, conflict once again gripped the region as the first Gulf War began and left the population reeling under the imposition of harsh sanctions.
“Those three months brought my country back 200 years,” she said. Her family fled Kirkuk, an oil town, and was separated in the exodus to the desert. For three months, family members did not know who was alive or dead.
“We buried a lot of people in the desert,” she said. “A lot of elderly people and children didn’t survive. Parents lost children, not because they were sick but because there was not enough water and bread to feed them. In the morning you would wake up and touch the bodies next to you to see who was still alive. We couldn’t keep the bodies long because of the heat and had to bury them in the desert. Until today I can still smell their bodies.”
It was during this time, at the age of 23, that she began to feel an increasing desire to devote her life to Jesus Christ, but her parents were not supportive of the idea. They had already promised her hand in marriage to another, but her heart already belonged to Jesus. When her father decided to move the family to Jordan, she refused to go. Instead, she became a nun and devoted herself to helping both Muslims and Christians get back on their feet.
“I gave up everything, I even went against my parents to become a religious sister so I could stay in Iraq and serve the poor people there,” she said. “I wanted to be the touch of God and do ordinary things with extraordinary love.”
In 2002, she came to the United States to study at Boston College where she began working as a chaplain at the Catholic Center. She returned to Iraq a year later because she had not heard from her relatives and was concerned. When she arrived, she found her country in a state of total chaos.
“When I saw Baghdad, I cried. It was nothing like what you see on TV. It broke my heart. . . . If I didn’t have faith, I would not be able to bear what I saw in Iraq.”
While her own sister accused her of being brainwashed by the Americans, the U.S. soldiers she tried to comfort also didn’t trust her.
“I love both peoples,” she said. “My heart is torn in two.”
Because the war is perceived by people in Iraq as a battle between Christianity and Islam, there is now open persecution of the Christian minority even where Muslims and Christians had always lived together in peace.
“This war is not just about you and me, but about our God,” Yaqob said. “People there see the U.S. as a Christian country, and they hate Christianity because of this war.”
As she travels the U.S. addressing youth, she begs them to work for peace.
“God created us all in his image – Christians, Muslims, Jews,” she says. “Peace is possible. We must not give up hope. Our Lord, Jesus Christ, overcame death. We can change the whole world if we set our faith on fire.”
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