Santa Barbara students connect Armenian village school to internet

by Patrick Bairamian

Published: Wednesday January 11, 2012

The Akhpradzor village computer lab.

Santa Barbara - It had been been two years since Nanor Balabanian and her campaign to make the hidden road visible through her "Hidden Road Initiative" as she and two UC-Santa Barbara classmates revisited the village of Akhpradzor in Armenia's Gegharkunik province, in October 2011.

After her first visit to Akhpradzor in 2009, Nanor witnessed the distress the village was in and sought to remedy the difficulties of being cut off from supplies during the winter snows by bringing the story of Akhpradzor back to the states to find support. Her time after she returned weren't spent idly, as she worked to produce the "Hidden Road Initiative," (HRI), which was the campaign of recognizing the village of Aghbradzor and its shortcomings, working with the University of California Santa Barbara and the Armenian Student Association of UCSB to propel the message of building a bridge between Diaspora Armenians and the villages that maintain the Homeland.

The campaign started when Nanor proposed that computers be installed in the village to help the villagers connect with their relatives and Diaspora Armenians, as well as be an integral tool in their daily lives by helping them access information on medicine, agriculture, weather reports, political news, e-commerce, etc.

It was at that moment that Astkhik Hakopian and Alexandra Basmadjian joined the effort. They were two UCSB freshman who were set on 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 Alexandra.

Now, three members strong and with the support of the girls' families, the University, and the members of the UCSB-ASA, the girls initiated their campaign. [According to The Bottom Line, the UC Santa Barbara's college newspaper, the three students raised some $25,000 in donations, including a $10,000 grant from the Donald Strauss Foundation. -Ed.]

The plan was to install a computer lab with at least three computers that had web cameras, computer software to benefit educational research, and Internet access. The Hidden Road Initiative ended up with six fully-loaded computers, with all modern capabilities.

"The main goals were to promote cultural and human awareness regarding Armenia," started Nanor when asked what the main goals of the campaign were. "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.

"Connecting Diaspora Armenians with their homeland through the Internet."

Astkhik added, "We created 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 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 web-cameras.

With the tools that the Internet provide, the village would soon be able to know drought reports via weather websites, sustainable irrigation methods, first-aid and emergency medical practices. The computers were also integral for the village through connection. Not just with Diaspora Armenians, but with the rest of the nation. Political news, community affairs, and national news updates were integral in building a stronger path to public communication and civic evolution.

Before the HRI group set off to their trip, there was the issue of getting access to Internet in a rural village that posed no real draw for business, for major Internet providers. The solution proved rather straightforward: "Our team members in Armenia purchased USB modems from Beeline [Armentel's cellular and internet brand] and connected them to the computers in the school which brought Internet to the village school," said Nanor.

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. They are being given the same opportunity to learn how we do in America; that's a big deal."

Nanor adds that the 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," she added.

When I asked what were some of the challenges they faced before their trip and after, all three girls reinforced an optimism that I was proud to be in the presence of.

"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."

Alexandra continued by saying that even though they were in the village to install the computers, just her, Nanor and Astkhik's presence was a beacon of hope. "It made them feel significant and important," said Alex, "for the first time in their lives, someone outside of their village actually knew and cared about them."

Astkhik had a different experience with realizing what her and the girls' presence did for the village. "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. One little boy that was listening to me intently was imaging everything I was saying, seeing him flex his arm, and look outside, his eyes searching for the sunlight," said Astkhik. "That was something that made my whole trip worthwhile, that hunger for knowledge. The abundant access 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!"

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Aleppo citadel - site of the AGBU celebration in Oct. 2008 (pictured) - is now in ruins. AGBU

Calendar of Events

The uncertain fate of Armenian communities in the Middle East and particularly in Aleppo will be discussed on Sept. 29 in LA and Oct. 9 in Boston; for details about these and other upcoming Armenian happenings in America consult the Calendar of Events.