By Patrick Bairamian
It was two years since Nanor Balabanian and two UC-Santa Barbara classmates had visited the village of Aghbradzor, Armenia.
During her first visit to Aghbradzor, Nanor witnessed the villagers’ distress as they were cut off from supplies during the winter snows, and decided to help by bringing their story to the U.S. Since then, she’s worked to set up the “Hidden Road Initiative” (HRI), in collaboration with the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) and the Armenian Students’ Association (ASA) of UCSB, to build a bridge between Diaspora Armenians and the villages in the homeland.
The campaign started when Nanor proposed bringing computers to Aghbradzor to help villagers both connect with their relatives and Diasporans, and to access information on medicine, agriculture, weather reports, news, and e-commerce. It was then—especially at the mention of medicine—that Astkhik Hakopian and Alexandria Basmadjian became interested. At the time, they were two UCSB freshmen set on having a career in the medical and biomedical fields. “For most of my life, I lived far away from any Armenian community. I had always wanted to be involved with a project like this, and finally the opportunity came,” said Alexandria.
Three members strong and with the support of their families, university, and members of the UCSB-ASA, the girls initiated their campaign: They created a computer lab with internet access, computer software to benefit educational research, and webcams. The Hidden Road Initiative ended up with six fully loaded computers, all with modern capabilities.
“The main goals were to promote cultural and human awareness regarding Armenia,” said Nanor. “Then, we had the more direct goal of allowing the village populace to combat poverty and empower students through technology and internet access.”
I was curious about combating poverty, so I asked how computers would do that. “By connecting Diaspora Armenians with their homeland through the internet,” she said.
Astkhik added, “We created a science, math, and English curriculum and augmented what they already were learning in the classroom with the use of the computers.”
In my own campaign to combat poverty, what the girls were saying rang true. Fighting poverty is more than just giving; it’s building and allowing what is built to mature on its own (with minimal assistance, of course—hence the webcams).
With the tools the internet provides, the village would soon be able to know drought reports via weather websites, sustainable irrigation methods, and first-aid and emergency medical practices. Access to political and national news, updates and community affairs was integral in building a stronger path to public communication and civic evolution.
Before the HRI group set off on their trip, however, there was the issue of getting internet access in a rural village that posed no real draw for major internet providers. Nanor contacted Viva-Cell, one of Armenia’s largest mobile phone and internet provider, which sent out a technician to the village when the group was there to set up a satellite connection at no cost to the HRI.
Strengthening the foundation
“Why computers?” I asked. “Why not clothes, medicine, or money?”
Alexandra responded immediately: “I have become a big advocate for e-education due to the success it has brought me. Now they are being given the same opportunity to learn how we do it in America. That’s a big deal.”
Nanor interjected, saying computers add no stronger feeling than that of unity. “It is a medium where we, the Diaspora Armenians, can share common interests, and share cultures, with the local villagers.”
I asked about some of the challenges they faced before and after their trip, and all three expressed an optimism I was proud to witness. “The village learned a lot from us, but we really learned a lot from them,” Nanor started. “ Our cultures were extremely different, but our Armenian blood united us all.” Alexandria continued by saying that even though they were in the village to install computers, just their presence was a beacon of hope. “It made them feel significant and important,” she said. “For the first time in their lives, someone outside of their village actually knew and cared about them.”
“One experience in particular was when I was explaining to the elementary class how their bodies convert sunlight to vitamin D, and the benefits of dairy and strong bone building,” explained Astkhik. “One little boy that was listening to me intently was imagining everything I was saying, flexing his arm and looking outside, his eyes searching for the sunlight. That was something that made my whole trip worthwhile—that hunger for knowledge. The abundant access to knowledge that we have in the States is something we take for granted. These kids are being given access to it, and they couldn’t be more excited!”
The next step
Nanor laughs when I ask her for a second time about the next step. Since our last interview a year ago, she’s talked about building a stronger connection in the village with computers. “This is only a beginning towards a bigger project to connect the Diaspora Armenians to their homeland.” When I turn to Alexandria and Astkhik to ask the same question, they also smile with excitement. Both say, at the same time, “This is only the beginning.”
“We, of course, need to expand and refine our mission,” Astkhik says. “The next step would be to send seasonal clothing, and keep up with the essentials that the village needs to sustain itself.”
“As of right now, though,” says Alex, “we are working on expanding our organization by recruiting more interns and volunteers. We’ve initiated an exciting pen pal program, where students from America will be able to communicate with students from the village.”
There is fire in the girls’ hearts, and it seems like it will burn eternally, just like the love they have for Aghbradzor. Hopefully, the story of the Hidden Road Initiative will not end here. It’s a template for any Diaspora Armenian who seeks to be a part of the homeland. These girls’ story is a testament to the fact that Armenia has open arms to its brethren, and we must embrace them with the same zeal.
For more information on how to get involved with the HRI, visit www.hiddenroadinitiative.com.