After bringing Internet capability to the remote town of Aghbradzor, Armenia, through the Hidden Road Initiative this summer, three UCSB students will share their experiences tonight in the Multipurpose Room of the Student Resource Building at 8 p.m.
HRI founder and fourth-year political science major Nanor Balabanian was awarded a $10,000 scholarship from the Donald A. Strauss Foundation last spring for her proposal to provide Internet access and supplemental education to the mountain village, which is cut off from outside contact from October to April each year due to severe weather. Balabanian — who is currently studying the technology’s effect on the town’s youth for her honors thesis — worked alongside HRI co-founders and fellow Gauchos Alexandra Basmadjian and Astkhik Hakobyan as well as her younger brother, Palo Alto High School student Azad Balabanian.
Stanford University graduate student Hovnatan Karapetyan, several students from Yerevan State University and arts and crafts instructor Nune Hakobyan also served as volunteers on the summer program.
During her first visit to Aghbradzor in 2009, Balabanian organized a children’s camp to supplement the village’s limited educational resources but still saw a need for lasting change. Balabanian returned to the U.S. determined to connect the community with the outside world and soon set her sights on building a wireless link.
“Living through a snowy, cold winter on the mountains of Armenia, the villagers of Aghbradzor are isolated for six months every year,” Balabanian said in a statement to the Strauss Foundation. “They have no roads, no transportation, no markets and no doctors. With the establishment of an Internet connection, the villagers will have a virtual road that will give them access to communication and resources outside their village.”
While the Initiative provided a medium for residents to access online education and civic processes, Balabanian said the community’s strength and kindness proved more valuable than the technology.
“It has been an unforgettable few weeks here at Aghbradzor for both our HRI team and the villagers,” Balabanian said in a blog post during the trip. “They had never seen anything like our computers and we had never seen anything like their village life. The village learned a lot from us, but we really learned a lot more from them.”
Basmadjian said the program — which aims to sustain itself by utilizing American and Armenian students to educate the teachers and students of Aghbradzor — was an enlightening look at society’s wide spectrum of living conditions.
“After visiting a place like Aghbradzor, where they live off of their land, have no doctor, a limited water supply and a hole in the ground as their toilet, one comes to appreciate the lifestyle in America so much more,” Basmadjian said in a blog post. “You gain a better insight as to what is truly important in life.”
Balabanian said HRI will continue to supply aid to the region and is requesting donations of clothing and shoes to send in preparation for this winter.
Despite the seemingly harsh conditions in the village, Hakobyan said its culture flourishes in the uninhibited context of a traditional, community-centered lifestyle.
According to Hakobyan, “Our time in Aghbradzor was spent in awe of how hard the villagers work every day, how excited the children were to gain new knowledge and how beautiful their ‘simple’ life really is.”
Tonight’s event, hosted by the Armenian Student Association, will feature Middle Eastern refreshments, a video created by the youth of Aghbradzor and a Skype chat with the schoolchildren. For more information about HRI, visit www.hiddenroadinitiative.com.