PRINCETON BOROUGH -- Sister Olga Yaqob found her calling to serve God amid the rubble in Iraq.
And she discovered her mission to spread a message of peace as a student in Boston.
The soft-spoken nun with large brown eyes who stands less than 5 feet tall in her high-heeled black boots has been described by some as the Iraqi version of Mother Teresa.
The 37-year-old left her parents' home in Kirkuk, Iraq, after the first Gulf War to work and live among the poor in Baghdad. After arriving in the Iraqi capital, she traded her regular clothes for a blue habit and white veil in honor of her protector, the Virgin Mary, and began to visit Abu Ghraib prison to pray with the inmates.
Four years later, her bishop gave her permission to start her own religious community, the Missionaries of the Virgin Mary. It is the first religious community for women in the Assyrian Catholic Church in 700 years.
In 2002, the bishop sent her to Boston College to study English and earn a master's degree in pastoral care. Little did she know then that her ministry would take a whole new direction.
"Two years ago I simply thought God brought me here to study, but when I look back, it wasn't just for study - God had a plan," she told about 75 students at the Princeton Theological Seminary earlier this month. The teach-in against the war was organized by a group of seminary professors.
"God sent me to Boston, where there is no Iraqi community as there is in other U.S. cities like Detroit, so I would learn English and come to love the people so much," Yaqob said. "I lived, prayed and celebrated Mass with American people, and we became so close. I love Americans."
After the war started, she saw she could be an ambassador on both sides, sharing her Iraqi perspective on the war with Americans, and vice versa.
Yaqob describes the effects of the war within the historical context of the past two decades.
"For more than 20 years of my life, I've seen suffering because of war," she said. "War is never the answer. It kills everything - hope, the meaning of life, your dreams. When you live a life of sadness and death without a future, without hope, do you think you are alive? No. That is the life of my people in Iraq."-- -- --
Yaqob was 13 when the eight-year-long war with Iran began. The struggle to survive and the fear of dying took over daily life during the war. Yaqob said neighbors would wake up in the morning and go 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."
Her people were relieved when the war ended, only to see the first Gulf War a few years later and the effects of the sanctions after the war.
"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."
After the war, with the family reunited in Kirkuk, Yaqob's father decided to move everyone to Jordan, but she pleaded to stay. She wanted to become a nun and help both Muslims and Christians in the country where Catholics, whose roots stretch back to the early church, make up less than 3 percent of the population.
"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."
Yaqob began her studies at Boston College in 2002 and began working as a chaplain at the Catholic Center at Boston University. She returned to Iraq in the summer of 2003 because she had not heard from her family in several months and was worried. What she saw was a country she said was and still is in total chaos.
"I love my country so much, just as you love your country," she said. "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."-- -- --
But in many ways the most difficult part of her return was the unexpected reaction of friends and relatives who could not understand why she would want to live in the United States.
"I told them that a lot of people here protest the war and are praying for them, but they don't believe me." Her sister suggested she had been brainwashed by the United States, and her 7-year-old niece begged her not to go back to Boston. "She said, `How can you live there auntie? Aren't they going to kill you? I cannot sleep. I'm afraid of them.' "
Yaqob also tried to comfort U.S. soldiers when she was there, but not knowing who was the enemy and who was not, they wouldn't trust her.
"I love both peoples," she said. "My heart is torn in two."
The war is perceived by people in Iraq as a battle between Christianity and Islam, and this perception has resulted in the persecution of the Christian minority there.
Before the war, Muslims and their Christian neighbors lived in peace and respected each others' religions, but now Christians are openly persecuted. Several churches have been bombed, and many Christians have fled the country to neighboring Syria.
"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."
At the end of her talk she begged the seminary students to help work for peace.
"God created us all in his image - Christians, Muslims, Jews," she said. "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."
Asked by students if she will stay in the United States once her studies are complete in May, the nun said her future is in God's hands.
"There is so much work to be done," she said. "I would like to be an instrument of love and continue my mission here if it is his will."
By Krystal Knapp
New Jersey Times