AMMAN, Jordan — A Catholic Relief Services project is helping residents returning to Iraq’s Ninevah Plain rebuild their lives, communities and trust, which were ripped apart by Islamic State militant destruction. It’s an area Pope Francis plans to visit on his historic papal trip to Iraq March 5-8.

For centuries, the Ninevah Plain has signified Iraq’s Christian heartland, but it has also included others from the country’s rich mosaic of ethnic and religious communities. But the area was torn apart by extremist violence that shattered harmony and scattered inhabitants far and wide.

“People lost their homes and ultimately their trust and relationship with others,” explained Hassan Amer, an Iraqi facilitator and project manager in CRS’ Shared Future Program.

“Formally, they called each other brothers and sisters living in the same neighborhood for many years,” Amer told Catholic News Service by phone from Irbil, in the northern Kurdistan region.

The U.S. Agency for International Development supports the program aimed at promoting peacebuilding and social cohesion, while boosting mutual understanding, tolerance and trust in the Ninevah Plain communities and fostering economic opportunities and livelihoods for young adults, 18-30. Entrepreneurship and work skills such as budgeting and marketing are provided, making the participants eligible for business grants.

“Communities are trying to rebuild after ISIS rule,” explained Sean O’Neill, a CRS/Caritas capacity strengthening manager in Iraq, using another name for the Islamic State group. “One of the first priorities is to be able to make a living and in parallel to that is rebuilding trust.”

Some 6 million of the Ninevah Plain’s inhabitants were forcibly displaced when the so-called Islamic State militants invaded in 2014, and so far, about 4.8 million Iraqis of various backgrounds have since returned, O’Neill told CNS.

“One of the biggest challenges is physical rebuilding and the economy, especially after so many years of devastation and war. They need to rebuild their houses, infrastructure and then they need to make a living. COVID, low oil prices and the currency’s devaluation haven’t helped,” O’Neill added.

Amer shared a story of one of the program’s participants, a former colleague from their university days in Mosul named Wassim, to illustrate the impact the project is making. Wassim’s last name is being withheld.

“We’re now both 28 years old. Wassim is a Yazidi from Bashiqa, a town on the Ninevah Plain,” said Amer. Bashiqa is located about 7 miles northeast of Mosul.

“Wassim is a very interesting, open-minded individual, who wants so much to support Iraqi communities and work on its social fabric,” Amer said. But after Wassim and his family were displaced by the extremists and fled to the northern town of Dahuk, he felt out of sorts.

Wassim said it was hard to leave home so suddenly and work with new people in a new language. He also felt that he needed to be careful about interacting with others because he could no longer have faith and trust in people due to the trauma he experienced. He yearned to return home to Bashiqa and did so in 2018, after the military cleared the area of land mines laid by the militants.

“Wassim formed a local initiative in Bashiqa, translated in English as ‘Hope Fingerprint’ — the idea of someone who leaves hope with others. He worked on cleaning the streets and got 35 youth from Bashiqa’s various communities to remove the rubble and destruction. They painted schools as well as peace signs on the streets. They also invited people to return and restart their lives,” Amer said.

Amer had grown up in Mosul and his own family left the city in 2006 as sectarian violence erupted. His family suffered more tragedy at the hands of Islamic State militants, who later killed an uncle who was a pilot trainer at one of the government’s airbases.

Because their relationship of trust built earlier, Wassim signed up for CRS’ Shared Future Program. It’s composed of three training stages of some four months each, involving practical workshops and project activities based on three B’s: binding, bonding and bridging.

When those traumatized by conflict return to their towns of origin after years of displacement, they have fears and concerns about interacting with other ethnic communities, said Amer. So, the aim in the binding phase is “to strengthen their ties within their same religious or ethnic community, provide trauma healing and emotional management and help to understand the conflict’s various dimensions of the conflict.” Community and religious leaders and young adults meet separately.

In the bonding phase, leaders and young adults from the same community come together and discuss their common interests and readiness to work and interact positively with other groups in the third stage.

Bridging focuses on working together as different communities across the conflict line on projects for the good of their town or community as a whole — to address current needs of the community.

For example, young adults designed and implemented a project putting together and distributing food baskets to people in need due to the dire economic situation in Iraq, made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.

So far, 500 participants from Muslim, Christian, Yazidi and Shobak backgrounds as well as Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen have all been involved in 13 projects across the Ninevah Plain in livelihood and social cohesion components. Meanwhile, 350 participants have entered in phase two. Religious leaders from the various communities are also very involved.

Amer said Wassim and others have now developed an understanding of technical terms, peacebuilding and group interactions. Wassim has been instrumental to “implement and connect our projects with other people from different ethnic groups.”

As a result of the CRS initiative, Amer said that “now, we feel like we are giving something to our communities. We have contributed to peacebuilding. We are not waiting for government support or intervention.”

He said the participants have discovered that they are “resilient and able to determine their own future, even with limited resources.”

“Personally, as someone working in peacebuilding, this is the least thing that I can offer to my community,” said Amer. “We are working on rebuilding our communities and trying to make Iraq a prosperous, productive and nice place to live again.”