Mother Olga Yaqob was only 16 years old when she began to volunteer at her church to help wash and prepare the bodies of people killed in the Iran-Iraq War for burial.
Performing five or more funerals a day, the bodies were often dismembered or in parts and difficult to identify. Once done, relatives had to be notified, many of whom were children being told of the death of their mother or father.
“It was a very difficult, very challenging time in my life,” Mother Olga said. “These memories are just so engraved in my mind and in my heart, that’s why ... I am a strong advocate of peace, dialogue.
“Never cease to pray for peace,” she urged.
The heartbreak and tragedy Mother Olga witnessed as a teenager serving in her Catholic Assyrian Church of the East were only the beginning of her experiences during four wars and 35 years in her homeland of Iraq.
Living in the United States now, Mother Olga’s work continues to be influenced by her witness of the immense suffering brought about by the wars in Iraq.
|Mother Olga prays the Rosary with families Jan. 10. Courtesy photo
In 2001, Mother Olga came to the U.S. in order to continue her education. A member of the Assyrian Catholic Church, she was received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church in 2005 and founded a religious order, the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth, in 2011, at the behest of Cardinal Seán O’Malley. She lives with her order in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.
Since moving to the United States, Mother Olga has returned to Iraq several times. In opposition to the wishes of many, she used these visits for continuing her mission work, including ministering to American troops who were stationed in Iraq during Christmas.
Mother Olga finds the current Iraq conflict especially troubling. Those interested in revenge and violence “took advantage of the wounds of my people,” she said.
“It was easy for them to recruit followers for their own agenda and cause the division we are experiencing today. It breaks my heart, because I know that is not good for the Iraqi people.”
Her concern for the people of her native land encouraged Mother Olga, while in her early 20s, to gather together other young people, both Muslims and Christians, to begin a ministry she called Love Your Neighbor. The current division between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East is a problem that Mother Olga did not experience: “Even the Muslims, they did not mind if I prayed to the Blessed Mother asking her to bless our journey.”
The main work of Love Your Neighbor was collecting food, water and medical supplies to distribute among the needy — often having to resort to begging to do so.
In the desert
|Mother Olga participates in a Marian
procession May 31. Courtesy photo
During the war, Mother Olga herself traveled through the desert with countless numbers of homeless and displaced people.
“I know what that means, waiting for just a cup of water, waiting for a piece of bread, waiting for a sign that we will get to a safe haven,” she said
She is particularly haunted by the memories of the many children and elderly who died during that time. One Holy Week in particular, with no priest, no Mass, not even a Bible, Mother Olga recalls gathering the children around her in the desert to tell them about the Last Supper and how Jesus came to save them. A few of the children eagerly asked if they would have colored eggs for the Holy Day.
Most of the children did not even survive to Easter Sunday. “We had to bury them wherever we were staying each night,” Mother Olga said.
The gift of peace
Beginning so soon after the war with Iran, the Gulf War was especially devastating. “I always say that war brought us 200 years back,” Mother Olga commented. For many years people no longer had electricity or running water.
The biggest challenge was within families. Parents desire, above everything, to provide three things for their children, she said: food, health and education. People were struggling just for food and the most basic health care; education went by the wayside.
One of seven children, Mother Olga was the only one to attend college. Disregard for education was due in part to the scarcity of resources, but also to the absolute hopelessness that young people in Iraq felt and continue to feel.
She remembers her younger brother asking, “What’s the point of trying to be educated when we are all going to be killed and die?”
Because the wars have come in such quick succession, the Iraqi people have had no chance to rebuild their country. “I felt I was constantly struggling just to provide the basic needs,” Mother Olga said. “When you have a country where 50 percent (of people) don’t know how to read or write anymore, what do you expect from that country?”
Those in prison especially were victims of the poor resources, and inmates were the focus of Mother Olga’s ministry for many years. She estimates that 99 percent of the people she served were Muslim. “I used to even memorize some of their prayers from the Koran for them, and they used to ask me, ‘but you are a religious sister, why do you do this for us?’ I told them, ‘Just so you would know my God teaches me to love you.’”
Sometimes people question her, Mother Olga said, asking why she continues to work for peace when so many people are dying and suffering.
“How can I not speak about peace, when the first thing that humanity received at the birth of Jesus was the gift of peace? And the first thing the Lord said after his resurrection when he appeared to the disciples, he said, ‘Peace be with you.’ And the last thing he said to them before his ascension into heaven: ‘My peace I give you, my peace I leave you,’” Mother Olga responds.
“So how can I not speak about peace and pray for peace? I will continue to work on this until the last breath of my life here on earth.”
Hannah M. Brockhaus is an OSV intern.