Iraqi nun looks at Syria refugee battle through lens of own past

Long before Cardinal Sean O’Malley encouraged Sister Olga Yaqob to establish an order of nuns, The Daughters of Mary of Nazareth, this tiny woman spent more than half her life as a refugee of four wars in her native Iraq.

“My family was from Kirkuk,” she recalled yesterday, “and during the first Gulf War, when all the oil tanks were bombed, my family fled into the desert to avoid being burned.” It was there, in the Iraqi desert, that she lost most of her family and endured what she described as “the ripple effects of war that were beyond the level of any human imagination.

“I have seen so much hatred and violence,” she said. “We were months in the desert, with children dying, their parents dying and we had no choice but to bury them there.” On her epic journey to becoming “Mother Olga,” founder of a spiritual order, she was once known as the “Mother Teresa of Baghdad,” not simply for her ministry in the streets of that war-ravaged city, but also for the work she did with prisoners behind the walls of Abu Ghraib prison, in the years before it became infamous.

As a Christian woman of 48 whose vocation was nurtured in a Muslim country, the grace in Mother Olga’s voice is balanced with an unflinching resolve. “I know what people are feeling in terms of their level of fear, frustration and anxiety,” she said, “and, yes, we need to respond to what has taken place in Paris and Beirut and now in Mali. “Yes, we must respond,” she repeated. “But not react. And that is a big difference … a huge difference.” 

It’s here that the nun, affectionately nicknamed “Blue Lightning” by the Boston University students she counseled, parts ways with nervous governors and blowhard presidential candidates. “To react to ISIS, to the horror they have caused,” Mother Olga said, “is to close the door on all the people whose lives have already been shattered, who’ve lost parents and children and everything they have in this world. 

“While I understand why people would want to react this way out of fear for what they have seen,” she said, “but by closing our doors to all the victims of ISIS, we are only giving ISIS even more power. In a very real sense, they have succeeded in terrorizing us. “Beyond making them stronger, this reaction removes the hope of those refugees who’ve been trapped by this poison, this evil, and are desperately seeking a way to sustain their lives.” 
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Mother Olga understands what it is like to be one of what she called “the lost people.” She said her “deep faith” and thirst for education saved her. But there was also that chance for a new beginning. Denied such a chance, this humble but extraordinary woman fears those “lost people,” turned away from the hope of new beginning, could well become the embittered, radicalized ISIS terrorists of tomorrow. 

Mother Olga speaks with a serenity you won’t hear from any of the current crop of presidential hopefuls. She speaks softly from hard and brutal personal experience at the hands of people who have evolved into ISIS. To put it bluntly, she has been there … as a victim of tyranny, a refugee and a faithful, fearless advocate for compassion laced with courage and generosity. 

by Peter Gelzinis

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