Article by Lilly Torosyan, originally published in h-pem.com
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We are often told that education is the key to building a healthy, stable society. This becomes all the more crucial in areas where access to resources such as electricity, running water, and even roads are limited--communities like the ones that HRI serves.
Founded in 2011 by college students at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), the Hidden Road Initiative (HRI) has shattered diasporan convention by marking a new age of nation-building, centering on local engagement of peripheral communities, beyond telethon fundraisers and summer tourism. Through the establishment of summer camps in underserved villages, fundraisers for winter and educational supplies, the construction of kindergartens, and scholarships for graduating students, HRI hopes to elevate the economic, social, and educational vitality of the communities it serves. The common thread to the many projects that HRI undertakes is that the villages and their communities are the investments, not the organization.
As an added benefit, the organization has also brought scores of diasporans and non-Armenians into the fold. Many of the students involved with HRI visit Armenia during their summers, fundraising throughout the year for a specific project, which tends to vary from year to year.
Hasmik’s inaugural project, “Operation: Reconstructing the Future,” encapsulates the prescient adage—what filmmaker Eric Nazarian says is the key to effecting change—that one must think globally and act locally.
One student + one dream = one yerkir
We’re all familiar with that oft-overused proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” In the case of Armenia today, this can mean the difference between handing out cash once or twice a year for charity or playing an integral role in the reinvigoration of a new yet ancient nation. HRI and its members are driven by this philosophy.
After moving to Los Angeles when she was 12 years old, Hasmik returned to Armenia nearly a decade later, in 2013, to visit her grandmother in the village of Tsaghkaber (meaning “Flower Bearer”). Located near the epicenter of the devastating 1988 Spitak Earthquake, Tsaghkaber took a massive beating, with many basic amenities—like a kindergarten, a medical center, a sewer system, and regular access to water—all but eradicated. However, the most shocking difference from Hasmik’s childhood, she says, was “a rather eerie lack of men.
“After speaking with locals [in Tsaghkaber] and the HRI team, I decided that it would be a good idea to try and do something about it,” she continues. Upon returning to the United States, Hasmik applied for—and received—a competitive grant from the Donald A. Strauss Foundation, which gives undergraduates $10,000 to carry out a public service project of their own design.
That summer, Hasmik, her sister Margarita, and friends Astkhik Hakobyan and Indelisa Muro, renovated, furnished, and opened the Tsaghkaber Kindergarten, which today serves seven childcare professionals and 28 children. “The impact it had on the community is bigger than any of us really expected. In addition to giving children a safe place to be during the day and become better prepared for school—as well as making the lives of the village women much easier during the busy months of spring, summer, and fall—the project also really empowered the residents of Tsaghkaber,” says Hasmik.
How can you get involved?
Exploring uncharted territories soon becomes the blueprint for future projects. As the Tsaghkaber project proved, capital alone is not enough to implement a successful undertaking. Without quick thinking, problem-solving, and emotional stamina and motivation, no amount of funding could ever achieve progress. However, in the off-season, fundraising remains an important component of HRI’s priorities, and Hasmik encourages all who can to donate. “As this kindergarten project really demonstrated, any amount makes a difference.”
The multipronged approach to HRI’s sustainable aid and development is not limited to construction projects. From the beginning, the mission was to connect isolated villages with the rest of the world virtually, through the Internet. Their first few activities consisted of donating computers and incorporating web literacy classes in summer camps. The project soon rapidly expanded to include a variety of projects.
Reoccurring HRI projects include educational summer camps and scholarships for university students from remote villages in Armenia. “All other projects are decided on during the year, after brainstorming and long discussions. Thus, after the completion of [the Jrashen] kindergarten project, we haven’t planned anything new yet,” explains Hasmik. In the future, she hopes HRI’s services will expand beyond Armenia, to incorporate a wider variety of projects.
For others wishing to start similar initiatives in Armenia, Hasmik offers two suggestions: “Find an organization [that] does similar work and ask for specific advice. And more importantly, work with like-minded and supportive individuals. The unity of the group and our shared vision and passion [at HRI] are what keep us afloat.”
As HRI shows, one need not be a certain age, nationality, ethnicity, gender, or financial ability to make a difference. Whether it is a college student in California building a kindergarten in Tsaghkaber or a 12-year-old Boy Scout renovating a school in Akhpradzor, anyone with a vision and resolve can change the situation of our homeland for the better because yerkiruh yerkir a ("the country is a country").
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