California student promotes Armenian community

Nanor Balabanian’s activism inspired by experiences in Armenia

by Patrick Bairamian

Published: Friday April 02, 2010

Armenian dance ensemble before their performance at the Middle-Eastern festival.

Nanor posing with the children outside of their school in Aghbradzor .

Santa Barbara - - It all started in the tiny village of Aghbradzor, Armenia, where Nanor Balabanian would find inspiration for future of her career, her life and broaden the appreciation of her culture.

Nanor's decision to be a political science major at the University of California at Santa Barbara where she is now a sophomore is a recent one.

Multi-cultural upbringing

"I always wanted to be in theatre, and dance," which she learned while living in Lebanon. I had already witnessed Nanor's interest in dance when she and a handful of her friends from the Armenian Student Association, which she will lead next year, put on a dance routine for downtown Santa Barbara's Annual Tribal Festival.

"They called me and asked if our Armenian Club has anything to offer, and I wasn't sure. We had only danced at club gatherings."

Nanor, with the help of her friends, quickly put together a group of students and choreographed four dances. The day of the festival, the group weaved into the crowd, and soon all the participants were either on their feet dancing with the ensemble or clapping in support.

I asked Nanor why she was inspired and involved into bringing a taste of Armenian culture to the Santa Barbara community.

"It has a lot to do with where I was born. In Lebanon, there was a constant clash of cultures, from Jewish to Arabic to Armenian. When they asked to see an Armenian dance, I was surprised they even knew who Armenians were."

Nanor came to the United States in 2005 when her family moved to the Bay area. It was in the public school system here that she was introduced to the concept of free speech and freedom of opinion.
Fascination with democratic governance became one of the factors that inspired her to pursue politics.
"There is such division in America among Armenians," says Nanor. "There are Iranian-Armenians, Russian-Armenians, Lebanese Armenians, etc."

Through political organization, Nanor believes that she can give back to the community and help make it more cohesive.

Armenia exposure

It was then that Nanor decided to go to Armenia to learn and help. Through an AGBU summer-internship program, she traveled to Yerevan where she interned at the United Nations office.

Through her advisor's guidance from ACT4Armenia, a non-profit group that is best known for its "Remember the Forgotten" bracelets, Nanor saw a way to "act for" Armenia by creating a documentary about a small village called Aghbradzor.

Though the road to the village was difficult, to say the least, "There was no pavement, or road markers; it was all rock."

But when Nanor and colleagues finally arrived in the impoverished community, she was greeted with the renowned Armenian hospitality. There were tables set up, and all the school children were outside.
"Everything was homemade: homemade cheese, juice, bread; everything," she remembers.
She learned that the village road was such a long and treacherous climb, especially with the winter snows, that people had to wait six months to see a doctor in the city four hours away, by car.
When Nanor asked if a person didn't get help, what would happen?

"An older man looked at me and laughed. All he said was, ‘he will die.'"

Surprised at the comfort of reality the villagers had surrounding their situation, Nanor sought to help.
She wasn't satisfied with only filming the villagers' lives as a documentary. Nanor contacted her ACT4Armenia mentor describing the situation and her desire to help the village in any way her resources could lead her to.

The mentor set up two trucks with donated toys, medical gear and miscellaneous items for transport. Then Nanor asked her internship-colleagues if they would join her in delivering the items to the village; all twenty-plus interns agreed.

Nanor's other idea was to have interns teach classes, as a one-day summer camp. Six classes were formed: immediate first-aide, arts and crafts, English language, sports, computers skills (with two computers used that were donated previously), and the dance class which Nanor herself taught.
On the day of the planned one-day summer camp, Nanor led two trucks, full of interns and supplies, through the mountainous road using only memory, rocks and trees as her map. On arrival, the group taught their classes with all the children rotating between all six, while Nanor finished her documentary she called, "The Hidden Road."

Community activism

While Nanor studies to become more involved in politics, she has been active on the campus at Santa Barbara.

In addition to upcoming dance events scheduled with her growing dance ensemble of students, Nanor is working to organize the April 24 Genocide commemoration event, which is being hosted in one of Santa Barbara theaters. She hopes that the event attracts more non-Armenians so that the larger community could learn the cause that Armenians are fighting for.

If there is one thing Nanor believes in most, other than her ties to her culture, it is her faith.

"Young Armenians often concentrate on their heritage rather than their faith. But they forget that faith is what got us to survive and become who we are today," she says. "We should never lose that."

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Carolann Najarian. Courtesy image

Calendar of Events

Veteran Armenian American activist Carolann Najarian will present her father's memoirs on surviving the genocide and settling in America, at a Boston area event on October 30; for details about this and other upcoming Armenian happenings in America consult the Calendar of Events.






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