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Journey of Faith

BU People: Sister Olga Yaqob’s 25-year quest for her vocation took her from Iraq

Sister Olga Yaqob delivers the invocation at the 2006 Commencement exercises. Photo by Albert L'Etoile

It’s hard to imagine the suffering brought on by four wars and 12 years of U.N.-sanctioned embargo that Sister Olga Yaqob has seen and experienced in her native Iraq. The sound of helicopters brings back memories of the bombs dropped on her country by Iran when she was a teenager. As she grew older, the BU campus minister spent seven years ministering to prisoners in the now notorious Abu Ghraib prison. During subsequent wars, her days and nights were spent searching for food and medication for children and the elderly; she even dug graves in the desert with her hands for the people who died while attempting to flee the country.

Yaqob endured more than physical and emotional suffering; she also suffered spiritually. When she was 14 years old, Yaqob says, she received the call to become a Roman Catholic nun, but her family — who belonged to the Assyrian Church of the East, one of several Catholic churches with its own patriarch — forbade her to convert. Her father sent her to Baghdad University hoping she’d meet a man and fall in love. He even attempted to arrange a marriage for her in London, but she refused to follow through.

“In my culture we cannot choose our religions or traditions,” says Yaqob. “We have to choose our parents’ beliefs, so it was very difficult for my parents to accept my decision.”

When her family fled Iraq in 1997 to escape the war, Yaqob remained in Baghdad against their wishes — she felt called to dedicate her life to God by serving those around her. “Watching the suffering of my people, especially children, was my main motivation for wanting to be consecrated, give my life to God, and leave my family,” she says. “Not because I didn’t want to be with them, but because I saw so much need in my country.”

A lay service movement she started called Love Your Neighbor caught the attention of her local bishop, who asked her to found a religious community for women called the Missionaries of the Virgin Mary. As the founder of the order, Yaqob became the first nun in the Assyrian Church of the East in over 700 years, but because she personally observed Roman Catholic practices such as attending daily Mass and praying the rosary, the bishop eventually took the order from her.

Despite these hardships, Yaqob would not surrender her calling. Instead, she accepted a scholarship from the Jesuits to pursue a master’s in ministry and spirituality at Boston College in 2001. She arrived without any knowledge of English, and Boston College sent her to study at Boston University’s Center for English Language and Orientation Programs (CELOP). At BU she received much more than English classes, becoming a spiritual advisor to students and interning for two years at Newman House, BU’s Catholic Center.

In December 2005, Yaqob finally realized her vocation in a ceremony at Marsh Chapel, where she professed her vows as a Roman Catholic nun and urban hermit. “I went through a lot in my faith journey and as I tell everyone, it took 25 years of my life, but it was worth it,” she says. “I know it went against my culture for a woman not to obey her parents — it went against my religious community and my family, and I went through a lot of suffering because of that — but I do believe that the faith that I practice is the truth.”

She chose BU as the site of this pivotal moment in her life because the University has become her home and the people here her family. “When I was making my final vows, Cardinal Sean O’Malley asked me where I would like to have the ceremony held. He thought I would choose a Catholic parish or basilica, but when I told him I wanted it at BU he was very supportive,” says Yaqob. “He knows that BU is my community and my home. There was no one there from Iraq for the ceremony and I did miss them, but I was surrounded by so much love, care, and support.”

Meghan Noé can be reached at mdorney@bu.edu.