As Iraqi coalition forces claw their way into Mosul, the retreating ISIS fighters have booby trapped streets, sent suicide bombers against the liberating army, and used civilians as human shields.
The civilians left in their wake are hungry, thirsty, terrified, and exhausted.
One of the first humanitarian groups to aid Iraq’s once second-largest city, moving in even as ISIS moves out, has been a group of persecuted Christians from Burma (also known as Myanmar).
Free Burma Rangers (FBR) is a Christian group originally formed to bring humanitarian aid to the Burmese minorities displaced by ongoing persecution from their military government. Led by David Eubank, a former US Army Ranger officer, the group supplies medical assistance, food, and shelter to combat areas. It also documents human rights abuses.
Members of FBR began working in the Kurdish regions of Iraq and Syria two years ago. The Burmese nationals and American volunteers have provided medical care, food, and water to Iraqis that were fleeing ISIS or recently liberated. They have evacuated and treated the wounded in an Iraqi supply truck ambushed by ISIS, prayed with a man whose family was killed by friendly fire, and provided programming for school children in northern Syria and northern Iraq.
CT spoke with Eubank, whose answers are brief because he was in Mosul outskirts, and FBR operations coordinator Hosannah Valentine about why Burmese Christians have traded their own conflict zone for another.
CT: FBR is set up to help oppressed people in Burma/Myanmar. How did you decide to add a ministry to Kurdistan?
DE: I was asked to come and help in February 2015 by a friend, Victor Marx of ATP ministries. I was on a relief mission in Burma, and he set me an email via a satellite link and asked us to come in seven days. But the Burma army was blocking us, and it [had taken] me three weeks walking to get where we were. We prayed, and the next day all the Burma army units moved. We walked 80 miles in three days, and then were able to get to a border, cross it, and get to Kurdistan in seven days—a miracle for us and a sign God wanted us there. Once in Kurdistan, I asked God what to do and felt he said, “Give up your own way and the FBR way, and come help these [Kurdish] people.” I have three prayers: that ISIS is stopped, people are freed, and the hearts of all enemies will change to love in Jesus’ name.
HV: We were invited to go see the situation and see if our experience in Burma could be useful in Kurdistan. We had already begun thinking through the idea of missions outside of Burma, to other oppressed people, and had gone to Sudan to help the Nuba people in 2014. We saw the value of oppressed people from Burma coming to help oppressed people in Sudan. The ethnic FBR members connected with the people there in a special way, born of having a shared experience of living through oppression, and still having joy and freedom. This same dynamic happens in Iraq as well.
However, international missions haven't been a formulaic policy decision, but the following of what we feel is a specific call of God to individual situations. As Dave said, we received an invitation to visit Kurdistan and a series of events happened that seemed to really be God opening the door to the opportunity—both being able to race through Kachin State on the heels of a moving Burma army force and financial support to make the missions happen.
On our initial missions [in Kurdistan], we were able to make good friends and meet a need. All this is enabled by God opening doors and drawing people to support these specific missions, as we continue to use all of our general funds on the work in Burma.
CT: Does FBR still work in Burma, or is it now primarily active in Kurdistan?
DE: Our main work is still very much in Burma. We have 70 teams there. We also do missions in Syria and Sudan in addition to Mosul.
HV: Our main work is still in Burma, where we have 70 ethnic relief teams responding to needs in many different parts of the country. While there has been a decrease in fighting in parts of Burma, in other areas such as Kachin and the northern Shan states, there is more than ever. Right now, our staff there are in the middle of training [approximately] 30 new teams. While much of the narrative about Burma is that it is improving, the people living there still see a need for teams that can respond to crises. Also, if we do more international missions, it will be crucial to keep building up FBR teams in Burma to a higher standard of excellence in all areas—for the sake of the people in need in Burma, and for those in need wherever else we are called.
CT: Who is doing the work in Kurdistan? Are these Burmese Christians that you’ve freed from oppression in Burma, who are now paying it forward by helping out in Iraq and Syria?
DE: Yes. We have pastors, medics, and videographers from Burma on our team [in Mosul], along with my family and some American volunteers.
HV: Yes, there are Burmese Christians—Karen, Karenni and Kachin so far—medics, pastors, cameramen, as well as American volunteers, and the Eubank family, doing the work in Kurdistan. They are people who feel called to stand against oppression and with people who are oppressed everywhere. They have a unique opportunity and ability to help these people. They have prayed about it, discussed it with their teammates, and responded when they feel God calling them. This is in the face of continuing oppression in their own home country. But they feel they are part of a team whose job has grown to help people in other countries. And so they go, confident they are called and with the support of their team back home.
CT: Why would Burmese Christians, who are barely out of oppression themselves, head to Kurdistan to put themselves right back into danger?
DE: They feel God’s call. They feel many have helped them for so long, so they should help others. They love the Kurds and Iraqis and feel they can understand them. They are used to war and can function well here. They feel this is where Jesus calls them.
HV: As they've come, they've found themselves able and effective here [in Mosul], and have come to love the people they help. Toh Win, a Karen medic and director of our medical school in Burma, was in Kurdistan in September and October. He said:
“Why did God want me to go there? To share the love of God and stand with those who face a difficult situation. God opened the way for our group, step by step, in the right time, so I know very well this is the calling from God to go and help these people…. These people are very good in welcoming guests and friends. They love us, and are happy that we help them and stand with them. We said, ‘We are a small group. We cannot help a lot. But what we can do is pray for you and stand with you, because our God sent us.’ One of their leaders said, ‘You are a small group, but you are very important, like a cup of water is important for a thirsty person.’”
This touched my heart a lot. I know God is doing a big thing that I cannot imagine. Most of the people we met do not share our religion, but they let us pray for them.
CT: Why is this important for Burmese Christians to do? What does this ministry tell us about the strength of the Burmese church?
DE: It is a very strong, outward-looking church.
HV: I think it’s important for Burmese Christians for the same reason it’s important for all Christians—it’s following God's call in obedience. I think it’s especially significant for Burmese Christians to be doing this because it demonstrates that God’s callings do not depend on our strength, but on our reliance on him. He does not ask us to wait until we’re squared away, safe, have money in the bank and have a safety net before we go do his work. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things. But I think we can learn from these Burmese Christians about obedience.
It does also demonstrate the strength of the Burmese church, which has held up under decades of oppression and continues to be outward-looking and not merely in self-preservation mode.
CT: What’s different about doing ministry in combat zones?
DE: There is real danger, violence, deprivation, constant changes, rage, destruction all around, people suffering and often no one to help, kids terrified and bewildered. [But] Jesus is the same all the time, and he brings love, truth, comfort, healing, and new ways.
HV: I think our ministry stays the same. We want to bring help, hope, and love to people under oppression and to meet their emergency needs. The needs change depending on the situation: Sometimes they are serious medical needs, sometimes they are material needs for food, shelter, supplies, etc. Usually the biggest need is simply security. People everywhere need God’s love and to be drawn to him as the ultimate meeter of their needs. One thing about ministry in combat zones is that usually we can’t stop the combat—we can’t fix their biggest need, which is to be secure. So we offer help as we can: medical, material, etc. But by simply being there with them, we also step into and share some of the powerlessness of the people we are with. As we point people to God, we are at the same time, very immediately, depending on him ourselves. This reality—which is true all the time—seems especially stark when under fire.
However, some of the mechanics of how we do things change. For example, if there’s not immediate fighting, we can do more training of local relief teams or more educational things with the kids. In more intense fighting, our work is more immediate relief provision.
CT: Do we need more "paramilitary" ministries?
DE: We need people who follow Jesus into war zones and are not led by comfort or fear but by the Lord and his opportunities.
HV: I agree with Dave that we need ministries that are willing to follow Jesus’ call into war zones and other danger zones, who are not led by comfort or fear. There is no formula, and I wouldn’t encourage someone who doesn’t feel called here to come. Obedience is what we are called to, not counting the cost—whether it be little or high.
Also, I wouldn’t call FBR “paramilitary” as we are not designed or organized as a fighting force. But we do undertake to prepare our relief teams to be functional in combat zones, which entails an understanding of how combat happens and how to move in those situations.
CT: How do you persuade donors to shift from helping oppressed people in Burma to doing ministry in Kurdistan?
DE: We need help in Burma still, as it is our main focus. We do not persuade. We only report on the needs and pray that God provides for all.
HV: We haven’t tried to persuade donors to shift support. We don’t really fundraise for specific parts of any of our work. Instead, we report on the situation in the areas where we are and the activities of our teams, and trust God to provide the support we need for the work he wants us to do.
Also, the kind of ministry we do in Burma and Sudan and Syria and Iraq is all basically the same. It’s providing help, both medical and material; hope, by telling the stories of the people we meet to the rest of the world, and encouraging them that they are not forgotten; and love, by being with them in their situation, praying for them, doing programs for their children, training them to be able to help themselves, and pointing them to the God who is love.
CT: What have the challenges and rewards been of branching out of your niche ministry into this new area?
DE: Learning new things, and to love people I knew almost nothing about and seeing the power of Jesus cut through all barriers. I pray for patience and love, as I am weak here in both.
HV: Challenges are learning to operate in a brand-new area, new people, and different culture. This presents both logistical and relational challenges, and requires patience, flexibility, tenacity, love, and faith. Personal challenges have been feeling stretched and pulled between different places and commitments.
The rewards have been lots of learning, new friends, and personally, I think my faith has grown as well. It’s a wonderful opportunity to have more and more of this world, God’s creation, opened up to me, and this happens when you go to people and stand with them in the middle of their worst situations. I think God opens their hearts, and yours too.