By Army Sgt. David Turner
Special to American Forces Press Service
July 2, 2008 - Students of the Village of Hope in Hawr Rajab, Iraq, began cleaning irrigation canals in the area June 26 in an effort to improve the flow of fresh water to nearby farms. The Village of Hope is a program that teaches construction skills to former members of the "Sons of Iraq" citizen security group. The new skills help them transition to other productive jobs in their community.
Airmen of the 577th Expeditionary RED HORSE Squadron -- RED HORSE is short for Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers -- teach classes of about 50 students at a time at a training facility at Patrol Base Stone in Hawr Rajab.
Village of Hope students were asked to assist the community with maintenance of irrigation canals. Keeping them clean and flowing is a necessary task, Air Force Capt. Michael Askegren, officer in charge of the Village of Hope program, said.
"The benefit is for the agricultural community," Askegren explained. "This is a rural community that relies heavily on agriculture and farming industries. By cleaning out the canals, they are helping to make sure that the water flowing to the fields is going to be good."
More than 200 students are enrolled in Village of Hope. Students work at community projects similar to cleaning the canals while they wait for their turn in the class rotation.
Employment opportunities outside of farming are scarce for young men in the area, Askegren said. The Village of Hope provides new job skills and an income for former members of the Sons of Iraq. Askegren estimated only about one-third of former Sons of Iraq would be able to get jobs in the Iraqi security forces.
"We've got to find other employment, other skills, to get these guys employed and keep them employed -- to give them trades that will carry them through the future," Askegren said.
In addition to cleaning the canals, the captain said, Village of Hope students soon will work on renovating homes and take on larger construction projects to benefit the community.
The Village of Hope instructors work with the Hawr Rajab town council to determine which projects are needed most.
"We got the second task order awarded [June 26] for students to continue work downtown, and we're already working on the next project, which will be the renovation of the Alma-an Boys School. We hope to have that [contract] awarded as soon as next week," Askegren said. "We're definitely moving into the full swing, as far as getting construction going downtown."
Askegren said that while the Village of Hope currently is funded only through the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year, he expects it to continue into 2009.
(Army Sgt. David Turner serves in the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs Office.)