Faith on the front lines
In an abandoned school on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq, Karen Huesby Eubank ’90, her family, and Free Burma Ranger team members are leading a group of local children in songs about God’s love. The children are enthusiastically clapping and laughing until their singing is interrupted by explosions outside.
Families quickly evacuate in this scene from the documentary Free Burma Rangers, which was released in theaters in February.
The scene might shock an audience in the safe confines of a U.S. movie theater, but for many families in northern Iraq, the chaos is unfortunately all too familiar as Iraqi soldiers fight to keep ISIS out of the area. The explosions by the school were set off by ISIS forces trying to drive away any remaining Iraqis.
“The [families] were not upset; they were not fazed,” Karen said in the film. “It was new for us. … It’s a much more intense situation than I ever have been in before.”
The Eubanks, however, do not allow that level of intensity to deter them from what they passionately believe to be their calling: to spread hope, help, and love in front-line areas where families are caught in the middle of conflict.
“I’m constantly inspired by these young men and women who chose to be rangers, many of whom have lost homes; they’ve lost their families … yet they’ve chosen to redeem that by serving their people.”
In 1997, Karen and her husband, Dave, a former U.S. Army Special Forces officer and Ranger, founded the humanitarian aid group Free Burma Rangers. The organization provides medical, educational, spiritual, and general assistance to people in the conflict areas of Burma (also known as Myanmar), Kurdistan, Iraq, Sudan and, most recently, Syria.
From their base camp in Karen State, Burma, the couple, their three children — Sahale, 19; Suuzanne, 17; and Peter, 14 — and a staff of both local and international volunteers train relief teams to serve oppressed ethnic minorities of all races and religions in war zones. To date, the Free Burma Rangers have trained more than 4,500 multiethnic relief rangers, treated more than 500,000 patients, and helped more than 1.5 million people.
The family’s journey to tumultuous foreign lands consisted of a series of small steps of obedience, Karen said.
“When God opens a door in front of you, you can do it. He’s going to go with you, whatever he asks you to do, as crazy as it may seem. And often the first step isn’t that crazy. The first step is pretty rational, and then if you go 20 years later and connect the dots, it looks pretty galactical, but all the steps getting there have been pretty straightforward.”
The First Steps: Foundations, Flexibility, and Teamwork
Karen, who grew up in Walla Walla, Washington, originally wanted to pursue a career in special education, helping students with learning disorders master basic skills like reading and math.
“I never planned to live overseas,” she said. “I was committed to working with kids in America in difficult situations.”
Karen chose Seattle Pacific University because she was impressed with the scope and caliber of its special education courses. SPU’s current special education major allows students to tailor the program to specific career tracks, including teaching, policy development, research, community work, or ministry outreach.
“One of the best things about that special education track was that they’d just drum into your head ‘Be flexible,’” Karen said. “[In] every class, they said, ‘You’d better be flexible. You don’t know what’s going to come at you in your teaching career. Be flexible!’”
Little did she know that being flexible would become an underlying theme in her life, beginning with the opportunity to study with a master teacher in London during her senior year.
“The program itself was flexible because being matched with a teacher in England wasn’t a set program at that point — it was kind of a one-off,” she said. “It definitely was a step in me understanding life overseas and kids in international schools. It’s so interesting when you look back and see the ways God had put steps together to put things in my head that I wouldn’t have even considered before.”
Karen graduated in 1990 with a bachelor of arts in special education. Soon afterward, she arrived at another crossroads in her life, one that required her to be flexible with her entire life plan.
A friend introduced her to Dave Eubank, a former military man with a missionary’s heart. Dave was born in Texas but spent most of his early life in Thailand, where his missionary parents ran a Thai dance and drama ministry. As an adult, he served almost 10 years in the Army before retiring in 1992 and enrolling at Fuller Theological Seminary. When Karen met him, he was answering a call to assist a group in Burma.
“I felt that he was the strongest man of God I had ever met, and I wanted to spend my life with him,” Karen said. “Yet I couldn’t see how my vocation as a special ed teacher would play out in the jungles of Burma and wasn’t sure I was cut out to be a missionary. He told me, ‘It’s not complicated being a missionary. People just want to see if you live your life any differently as a Christian: Do you treat your family differently? Do you handle your problems differently? They just want to see your faith worked out.’ That sounded simple enough.
“I knew I would find kids wherever I was, so I decided I’d figure out how to work out my vocation on the mission field with him.”
They married in 1993 and spent their honeymoon in Burma, thus beginning their humanitarian work with oppressed internally displaced persons* that would ultimately span more than two decades. The couple both say the keys to their marital success are mutual respect and admiration, shared values, commitment, and, most important, teamwork.
“We feel God brought us together in marriage, and we are a team in all we do. With Karen, I am fully supported, and she inspires me to be the best I can be,” Dave said. “We walk hand-in-hand behind Jesus.”
Others see the powerful dynamic, too. Marci Haigh ’02, who volunteered with Free Burma Rangers from 2004 to 2018, says the couple’s combined character strengths create a solid foundation for the organization.
“I saw in their relationship that it’s possible to 100% be on the same team, even if you don’t always agree. Karen spoke up in team meetings and asked the hard questions, and when the decisions were made (whether they were ones she agreed with or not), she was a solid support for the plan,” Haigh said. “She told me once that you always get to choose your leader. Karen has chosen to follow Dave on a lot of difficult climbs, and they’ve made it through together.”
Next Steps: The Evolution of Free Burma Rangers
After a few years of missions to assist ethnic groups oppressed by the Burma government and military, the Eubanks — along with Eliya Samson, a Karen National Liberation Army soldier and medic — formed Free Burma Rangers in 1997.
The organization’s original vision was solely focused on Burma, training members of pro-democracy groups to work as rangers providing emergency medical care and relief supplies to IDPs, while also capturing video documentation to share the raw truth of Burma military attacks (often denied by the Burma government) with the rest of the world.
“It’s not complicated being a missionary. People just want to see if you live your life any differently as a Christian: Do you treat your family differently? Do you handle your problems differently? They just want to see your faith worked out.”
“I’m constantly inspired by these young men and women who chose to be rangers, many of whom have lost homes; they’ve lost their families; they’ve lost opportunities with education as war ravages their area,” Karen said. “Yet they’ve chosen to redeem that by serving their people as medics or as videographers or teaching kids’ programs. They’ve learned how to take that conflict and put something new into it, put some hope and vision into it, and then inspire other young people to serve their own communities.”
Over time, the work expanded to other conflict zones, but the mission remains the same.
A typical day of ranger training at the Karen State Camp starts around 5 a.m. with physical training, moving on to camp cleanup and showers, and then communal breakfast at 7:30 a.m. Throughout the day, rangers attend both classroom and hands-on sessions with basic and advanced courses that include rigorous physical training, video and digital photography, map reading, mission planning, basic medical and dental care training, mule and horse handling and packing, human rights violation reporting, and other skills. Dinner is at 5:30 p.m.
After about 10 weeks of training six days a week, the Eubanks and seasoned volunteers accompany the new rangers on a monthlong mission, usually hiking 6 to 8 hours a day to villages in crisis.
Haigh said the Eubanks temper the physical demands with warmth, motivation, and encouragement.
“Dave Eubank was very motivational. He would ask me to take on tasks or responsibilities with conviction that I could do it — way more conviction than I myself had. I soon found myself driving giant trucks on the left side of the road, shifting gears with the wrong hand while driving over slippery log bridges that seemed about to fall off a cliff,” she said. “There are so many times that I almost backed out of the various challenges. But I would see Karen matter-of-factly stepping out there, paying attention and doing these awesome things. She would often say to me ‘If I can do this, so can you.’ And so I did.”
Steps in Courage: Good Life and Family
Karen was able to put her educational background to work when she started the Good Life Club in 1999 to bring comfort and hope to children in conflict zones. The Good Life Club is based on the words of Jesus in John 10:10: “For the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy, but I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.”
“In conflict settings, I wondered, What can I offer to these children who have lost their school and their home and some of them have lost their families? What hope can I bring them? Mostly, kids just like to play,” she said. “They have some trauma, but they’re eager to have attention. They’re eager to have love. They want to have play. And I realized I needed to give them some tools for an abundant spiritual life.”
During the programs, kids listen to Bible stories, sing songs, play games, and learn about health and basic hygiene. They also receive a T-shirt and supply packs.
The Eubank children assist with the kids’ program, along with other aspects of Free Burma Rangers’ operations. Karen is used to reactions that range from concern to admiration when people learn that her kids work alongside the couple in conflict areas.
“The local people teach us so much about loving God and loving each other that I want my kids to benefit from it. I want my kids to learn things from the people we’re serving and [learn] how God can open a way to serve that’s just right in front of you,” she explained. “Dave and I tell our kids: ‘The best thing we can give you as parents is this opportunity of following God’s call.’”
Hosannah Valentine ’02 has been working with the organization since 2006. She’s currently coordinating international missions and working with Dave on a book about the group’s efforts in Mosul. Valentine watched the Eubank kids grow up and has nothing but admiration for Karen and how she has succeeded in raising and home schooling them in the regions where they work.
“Karen is tough emotionally and spiritually, being willing to trust God with even the lives of her children in immediately dangerous situations, as long as she feels sure that is where they’re supposed to be,” Valentine said. “This doesn’t mean that she’s quixotically throwing up her hands and saying, ‘God will take care of everything.’ She’s always been extremely vigilant in doing everything in her power to be prepared for whatever they might face.”
Karen admits there are difficult moments, but she has relied on friends to help keep her focused on hope instead of fear. “The gift of faithful prayer and encouragement from my SPU friends throughout the years has been more significant than I could have ever imagined,” she said.
She also draws on scripture to find peace in difficult situations. “Psalm 23 is remarkably relevant as God promises his presence in the valley of the shadow of death as well as by still waters.
“In any fearful situation you have to return to the conviction that led you down that road to begin with,” Karen said. “Peace comes when I rest in the confidence that God’s hand guides us in all situations. His promise to be with us is the strength I carry with me, and the best gift I can offer the needs of the world.”
*Unlike refugees who are forced to leave their country’s borders due to war, persecution, or national disasters, an internally displaced person, often referred to as an IDP, is someone forced to flee their home for possibly similar reasons, but who remains within their country’s borders.