LENDING A HAND IN ARMENIA
By Gary Fletcher
Observer Staff Writer
ENTERPRISE While news back home is often dominated by terrorism and tragedy, some Enterprise newlyweds half way around the globe are among those quietly going about helping make positive changes in our world.
As Peace Corps volunteers, Rob and Bridget Anderson of Enterprise have completed half of a two-year stint in Armenia.
The Peace Corps helps countries such as Armenia, where in 1988 hundreds of thousands were killed in an earthquake.
In the town of Kapan, where the Andersons live, every family lost a man in the war with Azerbaijan. Tensions and fears still prevail.
Fathers and sons who survived the war have left to find work in Russia. Kapan's former population of 60,000 is now at 20,000. The 1998 collapse of the Soviet ruble also hit the country hard.
The Peace Corps also helps educate others about the United States and dispel myths about America. Likewise, Americans learn from their hosts.
The Andersons have learned a new language, made new friends and been enlightened regarding their own misconceptions.
Rob Anderson expected Armenians to be happy about their independence since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, which systematically eradicated facets of their old culture. Last year they celebrated the 1,700th anniversary of the oldest Christian church as a state religion.
The Soviets had provided jobs, homes, health coverage and education. In the wake of the Soviet departure, many people don't know how to seek out jobs or create business opportunities.
Armenia has been devastated by high unemployment, a bad economy, an education funding crises and an outward migration of young educated adults.
The country was without electrical power for a couple of years after gaining independence. Some people still only get power two hours a day. It could be at 1 a.m., so that's when cooking and cleaning has to be done. The luxury of electricity is used only for lighting and cooking.
Electricity is very expensive, Anderson said. Many people's electrical power was disconnected because they couldn't afford to pay the bills.
Armenians still can't afford the luxury of electricity to heat their homes. Some have natural gas, but there are problems getting it from Russia. Armenians don't heat until they absolutely have to, Anderson said. They just bundle up with lots of clothing.
Anderson found the weather similar to his hometown, but it seemed like it was cold all the time in Armenia.
"We got a little stir crazy after a while," he said about living, eating and sleeping in the one heated room of their apartment for four months.
Most Armenians have a wood stove, but wood too is expensive. Parks are picked clean of branches and twigs, as well as the wooden bench slats and even some utility poles.
Anderson has seen people burn shoes to keep the fires going. Manure is saved for cooking.
Water is rationed. The unrepaired and leaky infrastructure is turned on for two hours each morning and evening. In between, buckets of water are kept to flush the toilets.
Anderson, a 1996 graduate of Enterprise High School, has an international business administration marketing degree from Oregon Sate University. Five months of his studies were in Norway.
In Armenia he works in business development. He has helped people develop a business plan and make and sell things such as desks for local schools.
Anderson has acquired grants for computers, televisions, VCRs and related electronic equipment.
In spite of the otherwise terrible infrastructure, Armenians have really grasped computer technology, Anderson said. The country has a lot of specialists such as software programmers.
Anderson has started a community resource center. Even engineers and doctors are out of work. Anderson is trying to get them to volunteer at the center to help teach others.
People have been initially skeptical of initiating a business, Anderson said, because no one there can buy the product.
However, it has been found that if a young entrepreneur volunteers at first, if he is providing something people want, he discovers there is a market after all.
Anderson encourages people to diversify and be different than the old Soviet model of everything being the same.
There have been successes with honey, bottled water and wine. Anderson's next focus is to start specialty liqueur production.
Lack of financing has also been a problem because people don't know how to go about finding resources. Anderson learned of a former Kapan resident who is now a millionaire in Russia and is interested in investing in the liquer business. A New Zealand company will make the labels, set up the equipment and use its channels to open up markets.
"Made in Armenia" is a label Anderson believes has export potential because 10 million Armenians live abroad. He thinks a good place to start is with Californians from Kapan. There are 1 million Armenians in California.
Health & education
In Armenia, Bridget Brown Anderson is a community health volunteer and teaches at a boarding school for disabled and underprivileged children.
Bridget was a 1995 Chief Joseph Days princess. She graduated from Pepperdine in 1999 in religion and human services. She studied abroad in Jerusalem and helped build houses in Mexico for people in need.
In 2000, Bridget and Rob were among a couple dozen people from Enterprise Christian Church who spent two weeks building 14 small homes and a handicapped shelter in Honduras in the wake of Hurricane Mitch.
Help begins at home
In Armenia, Rob Anderson sees, to a degree, some parallels with Wallowa County's economic woes. In the recent past, his home county has held the dubious honor of having the highest unemployment rate in Oregon.
He never thought he would be able to return to his home town to work in his career field.
The couple now wants to investigate the possibility of becoming interns in the government funded RARE program that provides resources to rural areas.
In assisting underprivileged areas, the Andersons have come to the conclusion that they could get by with a little less.
They've found great rewards in helping others, and they have been greatly enriched by the personal relationships they've developed.