Mother Olga Yaqob has seen a lot in her 49 years, having lived through four wars in her native Iraq and started a new life in America. But she had never witnessed a birth like the one that occurred at a local Boston area hospital this past month.
“She was with a woman who was going through a very difficult labor, so she dropped to her knees and started praying,” said Pat Dembrowski, a case manager at a women’s shelter where Mother Olga ministers. “The medical team asked her to remove herself from the floor, which she wouldn’t do until the baby was born safely—which he was. There was a point where they were losing both the baby and the mother. Mother was there the whole time. … We attributed [the safe birth] to her faith and the faith of the mom because the baby’s heart had stopped beating.”
The little one and his mom are now home from the hospital and doing well. They live at Friends of the Unborn, the shelter in Quincy, Mass. Mother Olga and eight Daughters of Mary of Nazareth have lived at nearby St. Joseph’s Convent since last October and regularly attend Mass in the chapel at Friends of the Unborn.
Mother Olga has been like a mother to several women at the shelter, as many are immigrants and alone in this country. She knows what it’s like. When she was still relatively new in Boston, she was diagnosed with cancer and had to go through the treatment by herself in a foreign country.
Growing up in Iraq made her tough, to be sure, but she attributes her resiliency to faith. She said that from a very young age she has had the grace of abandonment to divine providence.
“If I have eight sisters today and I die 10 years from now and still have eight sisters, praise the Lord,” she said recently, discussing the religious community she started five years ago. “That’s his will. If it happens that sisters will come after I die, praise his name. That’s his will. I’m just doing his work. This community is not mine; it’s his.”
Mother Olga discussed her own background and her current work in an interview with Aleteia and in a recent talk at the Portsmouth Institute in Rhode Island.
Born in Kirkuk, she grew up in the Assyrian Church of the East. In 1980, when she was 13, her country and neighboring Iran entered into a long and bloody war. Because of a belief that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons in schools, her middle school was bombed.
“I saw so many dead bodies around me, from classmates and teachers,” she recalled. “At age 16 I volunteered in my church because we had five, six funerals every day. They used to bring burned, dead bodies from the war zone. We couldn’t even identify them. … I used to watch family members come close to identify their loved ones: a new bride, pregnant, who spent just a month with her husband before he was deployed, coming to identify her husband and she couldn’t even see his face because they just brought the lower part of his body, hearing all these words, witnessing the sorrow and grief of my people, year after year.”
She clung to hope. “My strength and my courage was from the cross; it was from Jesus, who promised … our fortitude and courage is not of human beings but of heavenly power,” she said.
Then, in 1990, Saddam invaded Kuwait. The ensuing Gulf War “took my country back 200 years,” Mother Olga said. “We used to walk miles and miles to find an old well to get water. We didn’t have electricity. I used to volunteer in a children’s hospital, where we had just one incubator, and watching babies die without making it to get to that incubator, and watching the grief of parents.”
The embargo the West imposed for the next 12 years prevented Iraq from recuperating, she maintained. “We ended up with 60% of the people not able to read or write. How can we expect a country to rebuild itself [with such a high illiteracy rate] and without any resources when the country is under embargo?”
Still refusing to despair, she started a movement called Love Your Neighbor, gathering Muslims and Christians to beg for food, clothes and medicine for those left handicapped from war, elderly people who had lost their homes, and their young children.
“When I hear what is happening in my country — about persecuted Christians and what Muslims are doing to Christians — this is a foreign thing to me because I worked bringing Muslims and Christians together,” she said. “That’s why I studied Islam, I studied the Quran from cover to cover, in order to work with them and build bridges between Christians and Muslims, so we can rebuild our country and heal the wounds of our people from those wars.”