Thousands of Iraqis have fled Mosul, but this American family moved in
By LOVEDAY MORRIS | The Washington Post | Published: June 8, 2017
MOSUL, Iraq — The Eubank family has a guiding principle - if other families are forced to live in war zones, there should be no issue with theirs being on hand to help.
And so as Iraqi forces pushed into the last pockets of western Mosul still under Islamic State control, an American mom was home schooling her three children in a room above a medic station deep inside the city.
Sahale, 16, and Suuzanne, 14, sat in a corner with their laptops near their mother, Karen, occasionally bursting into song. Eleven-year-old Peter lay on a camping mat on the floor doing math. They sleep in a house a short drive away, but spend their days at the medic station to assist and give out supplies to fleeing Iraqis.
About a mile away at the front line, their father, David, who says he served for a decade in the American military including in the U.S. Army's Special Forces, evacuated families as they came under sniper fire from Islamic State militants.
It was just an average day for the Eubanks, who describe their work as a calling from God.
The family has spent much of the past 20 years in the jungles of Myanmar, also known as Burma, where David founded the Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian organization that provides emergency medical care, shelter and food supplies in the country's long-running civil war. They first traveled to Iraq two years ago, initially working alongside Kurdish peshmerga forces in the war against the Islamic State. The family has also worked in Sudan and made two trips to the Kurdish areas of Syria.
Mosul's war, however, is more intense than anything they experienced before, Karen said. The eight-month conflict has taken place in a densely populated city, home to more than a million people when the battle began.
The fight, which Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had predicted would be over by the end of last year, has exhausted Iraqi troops, and the city's residents have suffered a heavy toll.
Families face a gantlet of risks. U.S.-led airstrikes and sometimes indiscriminate artillery and mortar fire by Iraqi forces bombard Islamic State-held neighborhoods. Families that attempt to escape risk being targeted by Islamic State sniper and machine gun fire, with the increasingly desperate militants mowing down hundreds of civilians in recent weeks.
"They've been shelled, shot at, they've grown up like this," David said. "Our deal is that if there's another family there, we can be there. Americans aren't worth more than anyone else."
His team of Free Burma Rangers - including medics from Myanmar's minorities who have traveled from their own war to help in Iraq's - prepared their equipment outside for an expected afternoon push by Iraqi forces.
The rest of the family usually stays a step back from the front line with Iraqi civilians. "I don't want my kids to die. I don't take them purposefully to the fighting," David said. "We pray and think about every risk."
The family's presence on the battlefield along with the team from Myanmar has been met with a mix of bemusement and gratitude by Iraqi forces. The group is currently hosted by Brig. Gen. Mustafa Sabah, a brigade commander with the Iraqi army's 9th Armored Division.
Sabah said that initially he was surprised that David brought his whole family with him.
"I thought this is not the right place for children," he said. "But then when I got to know them well I realized this is what makes them happy, and they really believe in what they are doing."
Sabah said by just being there, the family is doing enough "because they give positive energy to everyone around them," but that along with the other rangers they have effectively become a logistics battalion.
Earlier this month, the rangers came across a group of more than 50 civilians who had been gunned down by the militants. Several were still alive, including a small girl. They were only 150 yards away, but with the area within sniper range, there was no way of reaching them.
David coordinated smoke fire from the U.S.-led coalition in order to pull out survivors, including the child, who was cowering under the robes of her dead mother. Other rangers, who carry weapons, provided small-arms cover. The next day, more survivors were rescued from the area.
David's daughter picked him up after the rescue. "Just driving through Mosul with Sahale. What do you think, honey?" he asks in a video shot on the road, lined with rubble and the wreckage of twisted cars.
"I'm very happy to be here, blessed I get this opportunity to help people," she answers.
Sahale, who recently got her driver's permit during a visit to Alaska, where the family also spends time, sometimes drives patients from what David deems a "relatively secure area" to a "secure area." In Myanmar there's a lot more traveling on foot. Here it's the family Humvee, on loan from Sabah, or armored cars.
"I know to some Americans it would seem super high risk, but to us it's not that risky," said David, who was born in Texas but grew up in Thailand in a Christian missionary family. "It's an armored car just in case."
The children are also keen riders. They raced horses with the Shammar tribe in Syria last year and rode another in Mosul after it was freed from Islamic State. When times are quiet they put on "good life club" workshops in the community and gather children for plays, music and games.
Karen said she wanted to give her children an upbringing that was "rich physically and emotionally" and she hasn't received criticism so much as "prayerful concern" from family members.
"When you're here with the families it feels normal," she said. "It's not like I'm walking round the streets with ISIS around every corner," she said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. "I mean I might be, but it's a little bit more structured than that. It's hard for people to wrap their heads around."
In Mosul, a semblance of day-to-day life can return to a neighborhood while fighting is still raging a few blocks away. When the family is scared, they pray, David said.
Karen is a qualified teacher, and most days the children try to get in five or six hours of lessons. That can often be disrupted, though. As he did his math homework, 11-year-old Peter commented on the difference between the conflicts in Myanmar and in Iraq. The children, raised in the jungle, say they think of Myanmar as more of a home. Friends "think it's pretty crazy," said Suuzanne, named after the Myanmar Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Sahale said her unconventional upbringing is "a blessing," but that downsides include missing out on "normal high school life" and a lack of routine.
"Here anything can happen any day," she said. "We get to drive, we get to travel all over the world with our parents, just learn more things about the world."
The Washington Post's Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.