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CRS official sees new life in northern Iraq but says challenges remain

“There is a continuing lack of confidence in the security framework,” so militias composed of Shiites, Christians and others continue impose their presence in part because of the “inability of the Kurdish authorities and the Iraqi government to finalize a security framework that will work for the people,” O’Keefe said.

He also said that the Iraqi government’s failure to pay government employees their salaries has also been a “disincentive for return.”

To help address this issue, “CRS is starting a livelihoods program, with the goal of helping returnees to restart small businesses they had before they left,” O’Keefe said. He explained that this program will not provide training for people to start new professions. Rather, it is to “help these small businesses to have their working capital and supplies to re-establish their business.”

To address needs of the entire family, CRS is also seeking to bolster the education system in areas once under Islamic State control by providing “an emotional and social learning component in schools.”

CRS educational and livelihoods programs will aid some 400 returning families — roughly 2,000 people — in northern Iraq’s Hamdania region.

Most of the physical infrastructure of the schools is being built by the U.N. Development Program or UNICEF.

“Our role will be to provide teacher training and the more soft-side [educational aspects] so that children will be able to learn in schools in a positive environment,” O’Keefe said. The program will target mainly primary schools.

O’Keefe said U.N. officials told him that “demonstrable progress” is being made on work to rebuild the areas’ electrical grid, water and sanitation systems damaged by Islamic State militants.

While the international Christian community, including CRS, and local churches are supporting displaced Christians and other Iraqi religious minorities to be able to return to their homes and to assist with reconstruction, financial support is becoming tighter because “some of the specialized needs require so much more than what the international community is providing at this time,” O’Keefe warned.

“We can’t do this vital work alone. We rely on brothers and sisters in United States and the U.S. government for support,” he said.

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