She remembers the smell. Without a functioning sanitation system, raw sewage lined the rows of tents in the camp. Families would shower by poking holes into cups and pouring small amounts of their rationed water into them. Not enough to clean a child.
She had no friends, save for her siblings. With no schools, the camp could not bring children together or teach them proper language skills, and spending time outside of her tent without her parents was unthinkable. Children would go missing. She had witnessed some being raped.
These memories are vivid for her. A recent trip to a Jamba Juice had stoked a particularly powerful one after a sip of a wheatgrass beverage. The fields around the camp were wheatgrass, and she could remember their taste, the way they felt against her skin as she ran through them in one of the few ways she could play.
“It took me back, and I saw myself running through the fields, just this little kid running,” said Tech. Sgt. Odette Youkhanna Esho, non-commissioned officer in charge of the 56th Communications Squadron knowledge management cell. “We didn’t have toys or shoes. We didn’t have anything. It was an inhospitable place, just mud and dirt everywhere, cold. It smelled nasty. But that [wheatgrass] was kind of my safe haven, to be able to run in it and eat it as a kid.”
Esho is a communications specialist at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. Her day-to-day responsibilities are primarily administrative in nature, but she manages a unit which guides the flow and distribution of communications and information integral to base cyber operations. As well, she doubles as an additional duty first sergeant, a position in which she is responsible for the well-being and discipline of her entire squadron.
Her commander, Maj. Nathaniel Edwards, testifies to her crucial role and hard work in the organization.
“Tech. Sgt Esho epitomizes what we should all strive for in terms of professionalism and dedication,” Edwards said. “Esho, time and time again, puts in maximum effort and ensures that customers are satisfied. [She] aims for the stars every time.”
Esho stands at a firm 5 feet 6 inches. With raven-black hair pulled neatly into a bun and sunken almond-eyes that flit from object to object as she speaks, she doesn’t impose a particularly intimidating stature. She is self-admittedly shy, with an unending propensity for politeness, even to complete strangers. She is quick to gratitude, and has no aversion to apologizing for perceived slights. However, these traits belie a stern professionalism and a determination that is uncompromising, and behind her unassuming exterior lies a grittiness born out of extraordinary circumstances.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a series of deadly conflicts and wars, both within Iraq and involving its neighboring countries, displaced tens of thousands of Iraqis, primarily ethnic and religious minorities. Many of these individuals were forced to flee into safer regions as refugees. As a young child, Esho and her family were among them.
“Iraq in general was an absolutely terrible place,” Esho said. “It just wasn’t very welcoming or accepting of you if you were of a different culture, or a different race, or a different religion.”
Esho is ethnically Assyrian and was born on the outskirts of the Iraqi city of Mosul, in what used to be the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, an Iron-age civilization which ruled over a vast domain spanning from Egypt to Turkey between the 7th and 10th centuries B.C.
As a unique ethnic identity, the Assyrians have existed for thousands of years and continue to inhabit many of the places they originate from today, often as minorities and marginalized populations in their own ancestral homelands. To make matters worse, the primary religion of most Assyrians is Christianity, which has traditionally made them particular targets for oppression and violence by the various majority groups which have ruled over their homelands in countries like Syria, Iran and Iraq.
Esho’s family faced these brutal realities doubly, living in Iraq under the oppressive rule of the regime of Saddam Hussein. Her father, under the threat of death both to himself and his family, was forced into military service, where he eventually became an elite commando in Saddam’s special operations forces.
“When the Iraq-Iran war happened, he spent a lot of time in Iran,” Esho said. “Because he was Christian, they deployed him out with the other Christian men first, before the Muslims. The majority of the Iraqis who lost their lives during the war were Assyrians.”
Because of the danger of his forced service and the constant threat to his family, Esho’s father knew their time in Iraq was running out. While Esho’s siblings were born in Baghdad, where their father was stationed, Esho was born in Nineveh as the family moved north in preparation to leave the country.
“Things continued to get worse,” Esho said. “When 1990-1991 came around with the Kuwaiti invasion, the same thing happened, here comes Saddam sending troops into Kuwait who happen to be Christian, and my dad decided that this was no life to live.”
According to Esho, the Arabs and Kurds in the region, knowing that Christian Assyrian families were leaving, would paint the letter N on the doors of Christian houses, representing the Arabic derogatory term for Christians, Nazarene.
“We left with nothing,” Esho said. “We didn’t take televisions, furniture, vehicles, nothing. Just whatever you could carry on your backs and through the mountains is what you left with. The ‘N’ painted on the door indicated that a house was free to be ransacked, and families returning to those homes were free to be killed. When ISIS took over Iraq, they actually continued doing that.”
Esho’s family left with several other families and traveled north by night, moving from Christian village to Christian village or taking refuge in caves in the mountains. Esho was the youngest of three children, and along with her brother, were young enough that they had to be carried.
Eventually, they reached Turkey. When they were picked up by authorities, their father was separated from them while they were placed in a refugee camp. They didn’t see him again for weeks.
“They actually separated all of the men,” Esho said. “It was kind of like a vetting system. The Turkish government was trying to control who they were allowing across the border. Some of them never came back.”
He was eventually brought back to the camp in a bus, where Esho and her family waited to greet him. When he stepped off, he looked emaciated and tired.
“My dad doesn’t talk about what happened very much,” Esho said. “Every now and again, he’ll say some stuff that is shocking. Stuff about how they were beaten, starved, and stripped naked.”
According to Esho, life in the refugee camp was highly regimented. There were wake-up calls, and health and aid organizations would come to do wellness checks. Despite this, people often got sick. The lack of waste disposal meant that trash and excrement would build up, and diseases would spread. Esho’s mother would cut her kids’ hair extra short, to stave off the threat of lice. Each month, each family in the camp would be provided food rations, which included a bag of rice and some vegetables.
“We didn’t have the luxury of having meat or poultry or anything like that,” Esho said. “You had to be very careful about how much you ate, because you could run out.”
Esho’s family ultimately lived in the refugee camp under these conditions for more than two years, as her father worked to secure asylum for them in the West. Many of the families Esho traveled with, including relatives of her mother, were unable to deal with life in the camp and returned to Iraq. Esho says that they risked death in exchange for a chance at normalcy again.
Eventually, Esho’s father’s unique knowledge of Iraqi military practice helped to secure her family asylum in the United States. When the day finally came for them to leave, buses arrived to transport them out of the camp.
“We got transferred to Istanbul, and from Istanbul we went to Germany,” Esho said. “That bus ride from the refugee camp to Istanbul was kind of a blur, but it was joyous. Music was being played. People were happy. I was sitting on my mom’s lap and everything was fine. I had my family.”
From Istanbul, the family flew to Frankfurt, Germany, and from there, boarded a plane to America. They landed in Chicago at O’Hare International Airport, where other relatives from her father’s side of the family who had previously escaped Iraq were waiting to greet them.
“Some of them had escaped the same way,” Esho said. “Through Turkey, or through Greece, or through Jordan. Different parts where they were able to seek refuge before making the journey to America.”
Esho credits her father’s bravery and perseverance for their survival.
“Honestly, everything that I have is because of him,” Esho said. “The strength, the motivation, the inspiration. Everything is because of my dad and the hard work he went through. What I witnessed as a kid was horrible. I saw terrible things that you shouldn’t see as a child. I can only imagine the [post-traumatic stress disorder], what he saw, what my mom saw, what it was truly like from an adult’s eyes.”
During the early years of her time as an American, Esho’s father worked three different jobs in order to support the family, while her mother raised the kids from home until they were old enough to attend school.
After Esho graduated from high school, she moved to Arizona where her older sister was living to begin working and evaluate where she wanted to go in life. In 2008, Esho watched former President Obama speak about public service on TV, which embedded the idea in her head.
“I wanted to give back in some way, and at first I thought pursuing medicine would be how I would give back,” Esho said. “When I was watching the political campaigns at the time, then-Senator Obama talked about serving your country as a way to pay for college, and I took that idea and it turned into something that matched the foundations that my father instilled in us, the honesty, the integrity, the hard work, all of those values.”
Esho enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 2009, about a year and a half after her brother did. Her father was initially apprehensive about their decision, reasoning that he had worked so hard to take his kids out of Iraq, only for them to join the military in the middle of a war that might take them back. He quickly changed his mind when he watched his son graduate from basic training.
“When we went to my brother’s basic training graduation and we saw the amazing changes in him, [my father] was like, ‘Ok, this is good!’” Esho said. “We talked to his military training instructor, and his section chief, and my dad was just so proud. He even got himself the ‘Proud Air Force Dad’ t-shirt, which he still has.”
Esho says that she herself was ultimately swayed by what she saw at that graduation as well.
“I just felt this patriotic thing, and I wanted that, I wanted that feeling, I wanted that pride,” Esho said. “I wanted to make something of myself and do something worthwhile. I thought, this is how I’m going to say, ‘thank you.’ This is how I’m going to show that, as a refugee, I fought hard enough to be here.”
Esho, who in addition to her work is pursuing a master’s degree in technology management from Georgetown University, intends to complete a career in the Air Force with the full support of her father, who wore the same ‘Proud Air Force Dad’ t-shirt at her basic training graduation.