Olive Tree’s Roots Run Deep

If you ask any group of students at UC Irvine about a moment that changed their life, there’s no telling what kind of response you’ll get. However, if those students were part of the Olive Tree Initiative, chances are that their life changing moment occurred in the Middle East. Whether it was having a traditional Shabbat dinner in Jerusalem or watching children play in the streets of a Palestinian refugee camp, the UCI students that went on  OTI’s three week long trip to the region have more than a few life-changing stories to tell.

Students and faculty who wanted to learn more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through experiential learning founded the Olive Tree Initiative at UCI in March 2007. Anteaters from several diverse backgrounds made their first trip to the Middle East in 2008, and the tradition has continued on since then.

“Everyone is pushed to grow,”  Daniel Wehrenfennig, OTI’s faculty director, said. “Everyone is stretched in different ways, in what they believe, in who they are, and tend to return with a solution-based mindset.”

On Tuesday evening, members of the Olive Tree Initiative were formally welcomed back from their trip to the Middle East that lasted from August 10 – 31. Over that span of time, the group of OTI members traveled to more than 10 cities scattered throughout Israel, Palestine and Jordan, visiting historical sights including the Dome of the Rock and Jerusalem’s Western Wall. While these historical sights were breathtaking, it was  experiencing society in the region that seemed to stand out in the students’ memories.

As one can imagine, cultural differences were impossible to ignore, and at times the students had to take a moment just to contextualize the events that happened right before their eyes. One such experience took place when Hassan Rassmy, a third year International Studies and Social & Public Policy double major who is of Egyptian descent, entered the country of Jordan.

While it took extended periods of time for his fellow OTI members to enter the country, Rassmy was asked by the customs agent, “Your name is Hassan, where are you from?” When Rassmy responded that his father is from Egypt, the agent quickly stamped his passport and happily exclaimed, “Welcome to Jordan!”

Rassmy says that occurrence  was a testament to the culture in the Middle East, where the emphasis is put on one’s heritage just as much as, if not more than, one’s nationality.

Noor Halim, a fifth year political science major, recalled visiting the Palestinian refugee camps. Halim’s grandmother is Palestinian and she has been through some of the region’s worst conflicts, including the Second Intifada which made walking through the camps a more difficult experience.

“Going to the camps, it was hard for me to see,” Halim remembered. “It’s the poorest place you can witness. There are no actual streets. Scratch anything you see in the US, it doesn’t compare.”

Many students spoke of emotional reactions, and, often times, of having multiple feelings at once. Some spoke of mixed feelings for people on either side of the conflict, feeling sympathy for their pain, yet angry for the pain they had inflicted in retaliation. One student who spoke began to cry at the end of her speech at the OTI homecoming event, overwhelmed by her memories of the trip.

Devin Yaeger, a third year economics major, who was one of the few Jewish students who went on the trip, experienced a feeling of mixed emotions during a visit to a Palestinian refugee family in Jaresh. The family was incredibly hospitable and kind, serving a meal with various local dishes and engaging in friendly conversation. After several hours, Yaeger and one of the young men of the family went to an adjoining room to smoke a post-meal cigarette and relax.

“As we took part in that rare indulgence, I saw something on the son’s cabinet that startled me, and reminded me of just exactly where I was,” Yaeger said.

“It was a propaganda sticker lauding the heroics and bravery of the martyrs of the Al-Aqsa brigade, and the suicide bombers and freedom fighters of the Second Intifada.”

Timna Medovoy, a fourth year political science major, is one of the few OTI members that have gone on the trip more than once, returning from her second trip in August. Raised to be pro-Palestine, she remarked on how her journey to Israel opened her eyes to the opposite perspective, allowing her to understand all viewpoints, regardless of whether or not she agreed with them. Medovoy’s experiences also humanized the Israel-Palestine conflict and allowed her to see it as more than just statistics and headlines.

“That trip really opened my eyes to that whole side of the conflict,” Medovoy said. “The thing that OTI does for most students is allow you to see things on a much more human level, and not seeing it as good versus bad or right versus wrong, but really seeing it as individual people with fears, and feelings and loss. There’s so much fear on both sides. You can’t quantify it, you can’t measure it against each other.”

The OTI trip to the Middle East seemed to be rewarding to each person involved, though the benefits of the experience exceed the emotional growth and worldly awareness.

According to OTI Alumni Coordinator and UCI alumnus Kevin Pham, students return from the trip with a newfound sense of purpose and direction. Pham noted that many students change their majors upon returning, and that alumni of the program have gone on to work in the Middle East, become Rhodes, Rotary and Fulbright scholars, and work at media outlets located around the world.

At the end of the event, Wehrenfennig proudly surveyed the room.

“This just the beginning,” he said. “They will go on to write articles about this, to careers. The learning never stops.”