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Apprentice Program Teaches Construction Skills to Young Iraqis

By Elaine Eliah
Special to American Forces Press Service

HABBANIYAH, Iraq, Dec. 29, 2005 – While western Iraq's Anbar province was making headlines with its voter turnout this month, a quieter turnout of its young men was making headway graduating from school.

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Lt. Col. Stephen Grumbach of the Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence and Chuck Kubic, president of contractor ECC International, help to distribute tool kits to graduates of the Iraq Construction Apprentice Program. A nonprofit group, "Spirit of America" donates the tool kits. Photo courtesy of ECC International
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

In Habbaniyah, a volatile city where rockets and mortars destroy buildings and lives all too suddenly and frequently, the Iraq Construction Apprentice Program is facilitating Iraqi rebuilding efforts, one brick and one life at a time.

The apprentice course began in September at the military base here, an old British base that the Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence contracted ECC International to renovate so the Iraqi army could establish a presence in Anbar. In the program, apprentices age 16 to 22 learn the construction skills most needed at the job site and most likely to find them future employment when the base work is complete.

Students were a cultural cross-section of Sunni and Shiia, like the city of Habbaniyah itself, and like virtually all the city's 30,000 residents, they shared a common bond of poverty, illiteracy and total lack of opportunity.

The ICAP program had more ambitious goals than simply teaching skill sets, officials said. ECCI benefits from higher skilled labor, AFCEE gets an improved product, and Iraq realizes a boost in construction sector capacity. Parents found new hope seeing their sons enter the labor market, and the local economy improved as the student stipends supplemented family income. For the young men, self-esteem grew along with competence. But more importantly, officials said, the hope is that self-reliance will make these young men less vulnerable to the appeal of insurgent leaders.

"The locals are less likely to attack when everybody is benefiting," explained AFCEE's Lt. Col. Stephen Grumbach. "This program is improving the lives of Iraqi people and making it safer for us."

Retired Navy Rear Adm. Chuck Kubic, ECCI president, explained 22 December to CNN's Kyra Phillips, told CNN reporter Kyra Phillips on Dec. 22 that the program is helping Iraqis and Americans alike. "The work these kids are doing is helping to build their own country and helping the transition to the Iraqi army replacing our own troops," he said.

Kubic had the idea for the apprentice classes when he led the U.S. Navy Seabees into Anbar. Seabee engineers became his first teachers, and his first students were mainly adult men, desperate to earn even the student stipend to support their families. After returning to Iraq in civilian clothes, Kubic wanted to continue this training effort, concentrating on the specific skills required to improve quality on ECCI's construction projects and reaching out to younger apprentices. "What we're seeing now is that the older men already have jobs," he said. Lack of reading, writing, and basic arithmetic skills did not preclude class entry, but the students, some as young as 12 years old, had to clear military intelligence screening.

Postponement of the six-week class was necessary during Ramadan, when Muslim families partake in daily fasting and late-night festivities. A drive-by shooting at the entry gate two days before the start of classes reduced enrollment only slightly, Kubic said, but when a colleague was kidnapped and killed, it took somewhat longer to bring students back.

"This classroom was only five meters from where a mortar round exploded several weeks ago while class was in session," Kubic said, "but even this didn't stop the desire to learn."

Two vacant buildings, side by side, were selected for the school. The original plan was for students to study in one and sleep in the other. But the apprentices' parents -- concerned about security or uncomfortable about overexposure to American ways - did not want their sons staying on the base. School staff instead met students each morning at the base entry point, where they were searched and given badges along with arriving construction workers.

ECCI installed electricity, air conditioners and windows, but the balance of building renovation became part of the course. Students practiced plastering, surface preparation and painting while fixing up their own classroom. They learned about hand tools while putting together their own school desks.

As many students could not read, all lessons included lectures and demonstrations given by ECCI's bilingual superintendents and engineers. The curriculum alternated class time with on-the-job practice, and safety lessons were an inherent part of each day's work.

"This is like a shop class," Grumbach said at graduation ceremonies. "I am told this is the only school that some of these Iraqi kids have had."

On graduation day, Grumbach and Navy Cmdr. Scott Lister, an engineer with the Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq, helped Kubic and the ECCI staff distribute certificates and graduation tool kits consisting of a toolbox, a level, a tape measure, a file, a hammer, a spatula and a hardhat. Spirit of America, a nonprofit organization that also had helped graduates of Kubic's Seabee program, donated the kits. Michele Redmond, Spirit of America project director, said the organization seeks to extend the goodwill of the American people and support American military and civilian personnel "and people who call to Americans for help in their struggle for freedom and democracy."

A new beginners class starts in early 2006, and some of the most promising current graduates will be invited to participate in advanced apprentice training. All students are welcome to use their new skills and new tools to help ECCI renovate Habbaniyah's classic old British Hotel, which will serve as headquarters for the Iraqi Army 7th Division.

"This is the part of Iraq within which these young builders must now grow, develop, and apply their new skills," Kubic said. "They must now do their part to build a new Iraq democracy and a country where they can live in peace with freedom."

(Elaine Eliah is a communications specialist with ECC International Baghdad.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageApprentices in Habbaniyah, Iraq, mark a measurement. The apprentices are helping to rebuild their town while learning valuable skills that will serve them for life. Photo courtesy of ECC International  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageParticipants in the Iraq Construction Apprentice Program build a set of stairs. Photo courtesy of ECC International  
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