Aysha, OTI 1 (South Caucasus)
Major: Psychology and Social Behavior
Aysha is a Planner at Nspiregreen and a contributing author of several Urban Land Institute (ULI) publications on active transportation, stormwater management, corridor redevelopment, and affordable housing. Prior to Nspiregreen, Aysha conducted research with the Fulbright Eco-Leadership program in Canada, the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in Istanbul and the UCLA Institute for Transportation Studies (ITS) in Los Angeles. Her research for the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), “Equity in Motion: Bikeshare in Low-Income Communities”, used geospatial statistics to prioritize station-level improvements for Capital Bikeshare in high poverty areas of Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of the “Olive Tree Initiative: Armenia-Turkey”, an interdisciplinary conflict resolution group. She earned her Masters of Urban & Regional Planning (MURP) at UCLA and speaks Spanish, Turkish and English.
"We started the first “Olive Tree Initiative - Armenia/Turkey” cohort with a handful of students. Now, nearly a decade later, it has engaged dozens of Turks, Armenians and Americans in meaningful dialogue and discourse over a century after the Armenian Genocide.
As an urban planner, I use the skills I learned through OTI to help multiple public and private stakeholders build consensus around polemical land use, and environmental and transportation developments in their communities. As a Turkish-American, I leverage my OTI experience to be a stronger advocate for an open, transparent, empathetic and inclusive dialogue between Turks and Armenians in the diaspora."
Ana, OTI 2 (Middle East)
After the Olive Tree Initiative, Ana graduated with her bachelor's degree while simultaneously working for a film company in Los Angeles in their online marketing department. She later traveled to different corporations until She decided to set up her own online marketing company called Levley Marketing which is geared towards affordable and honest marketing for other small to medium-sized businesses.
“Being a part of the Olive Tree Initiative was one of the best parts of my life. Not only did I make unexpected friendships, but I learned so much about what was really going on in Israel and Palestine. I learned that there is not one answer, but many people truly believed in dialogue. I learned how to listen to people I don't agree with, that peace is achievable even though some lived through catastrophic events, that an incredible strength can come from people with nothing, that brutal and gruesome events are real and true -- seeing them was hard but impactful -- and that there is not one truth, but many truths, it is all due to perception and experiences. What I learned on the Olive Tree Initiative was priceless and I will carry those moments in my heart for the rest of my life.”
Kevin, OTI 2 (Middle East)
Major(s): Political Science
Immediately after OTI, Kevin conducted research for and taught his own college course on cultural narratives at UCI in his senior year. After graduating, and having learned of the power of travel from OTI, he decided to live in Vietnam for a year teaching English, rediscovering the roots of his identity and relearning the Vietnamese language. In 2011, he was awarded the Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship and lived in the Netherlands for one year doing a master’s degree in Conflict Resolution and Governance at the University of Amsterdam. As an ambassadorial scholar, he gave presentations about the Olive Tree Initiative to Rotary Clubs throughout the Netherlands, Cairo, Egypt, Tennessee and California. He is currently doing a Ph.D in Political Theory and Conflict Resolution at UC Riverside.
“The transformative power of OTI cannot be overstated. Engaging all five senses with various narratives, while crossing mental and physical borders daily, allowed concepts to be deeply felt, not merely understood. The force of such rigorous education gave me the momentum to do things afterward I would have never imagined. The most important point, however, is that I am not unique in being effected by OTI. A growing network of leaders is created from this initiative, one driven by critical thinking and the understanding that proactive and collaborative engagement is necessary to address the world’s most pressing issues.”
Mariam, OTI 2 (Middle East)
Major(s): International Studies and Conflict Resolution
Mariam graduated in August of 2012 with a Masters in Social Entrepreneurship from Hult International Business School in London. While there she completed an internship with a non-profit focusing on local and global social innovation. Recently, she's relocated to Seattle in pursuit of a career in international development, and also hopes to get further involved in interfaith projects.
“I think one of OTI's most important gifts to the academic community is promoting solution-oriented thinking by creating a space for diverse individuals that care deeply about the people affected by the conflict to come together on an intimate level. Even more important are the lasting relationships that form across community and faith lines as a result. It is for this reason that although it's been over three years since our journey to Israel and Palestine, I still feel like I'm part of the OTI family.”
Daaman, OTI 2 (Middle East)
Major(s): International Studies
After graduating from UCI, Daaman moved back to India and began a career in the news media. She worked as an assistant producer for Day and Night news channel followed by a stint at CNN IBN. She then began pursuing her masters in Foreign Policy at JSIA and am currently in DC for a year abroad at American University. She is currently interning at a think tank called the German Marshall Fund and writing a blog for CNN IBN.
“OTI opened my eyes to a world beyond the one-dimensional textbook learning that we participate in classes at universities. Our interactions with locals from both sides made me realize that despite the disparities and differences we all yearn for the same basic rights and liberties and share something irreducible. This notion of belonging to a similar creed has stuck with me and committed me to a life path that is mindful of this narrative.”
Omer, OTI 3 (Middle East)
Following his time with the OTI, Omer began his postgraduate master's program at Haifa University in Haifa, Israel studying Peace & Conflict Management. Omer has stated that he would not have had the courage to get involved so deeply in the field of "peace and conflict studies" if it weren't for his experience with the Olive Tree Initiative. He firmly believes four years with the group gave him some incredibly valuable tools with which to approach conflict.
“Being in OTI was very eye-opening, in that it really called into question not only a lot of my assumptions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also conflict resolution in general. It was, more than anything, a humbling experience, helping me realize that, for the most part, conflict resolution is a process and not an event like we're so often led to believe. It seems true to me that peace can't just arise after politicians agree to settle their differences (though that would be a welcome gesture), but conflicts also require deconstruction in public. Discussion and education seem to be a huge part of that, which my experience with OTI, particularly the group reflections, made that uncomfortably clear.”
Armaan, OTI 3/4 (Middle East)
Major(s): Biological Sciences
After his participation in the Olive Tree Initiative trip in 2010, and then again as a returning student in 2011, Armaan received the 2011-2012 UC Irvine Dalai Lama Endowed Scholarship, an annual undergraduate award that recognizes intellectual distinction, service to the community, and commitment to ethics, peace and positive global relations. With project funding from the international Dalai Lama fellowship, Armaan launched an interfaith service initiative focused on hunger and homelessness entitled Leap of Faith, the core of UC Irvine's participation in the White House Interfaith and Community Service Challenge (launched in spring 2011). As a part of Leap of Faith, Armaan served as the moderator for a conversation with Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan through the Living Peace Series at UCI in May 2012.
That year, Armaan was appointed as the sole undergraduate member and UC Irvine representative on UC President Mark Yudof's Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion. The purpose of the council was to advise the UC President in addressing challenges to, and identifying promising practices for, enhancing tolerant and inclusive environments on each of the ten University of California campuses. During his service on the Council, Armaan was a member of the fact-finding team charged with the evaluation of the educational and co-curricular experiences of Muslim and Arab students, which culminated in a report and recommendations issued in July 2012.
Upon graduation, Armaan was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and accepted as a research fellow to the 2013-2014 Fulbright U.S. Student Program in Jordan. He currently resides with his wife in Amman, Jordan, where he is studying Arabic and conducting research at the Noor Al-Hussein Foundation's Institute for Family Health on computer-aided diabetes risk assessment and education in a medically underserved population. After the conclusion of his fellowship, he will begin his studies toward a combined MD-PhD in public health under the Johns Hopkins University Medical Scientist Training Program.
"With the Olive Tree Initiative, I learned more about the difficult realities that define structural violence than I have ever learned in a classroom. I was inspired by the perseverance that I witnessed in the people of the region, who face seemingly insurmountable barriers of violence and anger. Moreover, while mediating student dialogue and field study in Israel-Palestine, I witnessed the power of education to shift paradigms and connect people."
Corey, OTI 4 (Middle East)
Major(s): Anthropology and International Development
Immediately after graduating from UCLA, Corey was hired as the founding Associate Director of the Olive Tree Initiative where he helped oversee its expansion to campuses in California and abroad, and provided leadership to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict program. In 2014, Corey received a Presidential Appointment to the U.S. Foreign Service under the Obama administration where his work ranged from coordinating Latin American public affairs in DC to serving on the management team of the U.S. Embassy Venezuela during the most volatile economic and political crisis in the country’s history.
Corey resigned from his post in 2017 to join the Executive Communications team for University of California President, Janet Napolitano. He helps direct the President’s outreach, engagement, and messaging to promote the power of UC research and education in forging a better future worldwide.
Corey graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with a B.A. in Anthropology and focus in International Development. Beyond his international credentials, he is an avid cinema lover and remains determined to one day create stories based on his unique experiences.
"What made OTI special for me was the caliber of diverse students within it. There were students that challenged me with arguments I did not have the answers to, and they forced me to read up and back up my arguments if I wanted to engage with them. I think most students try to stay in “safe spaces” where they are not challenged by others to grow their minds and capabilities. OTI taught me to lead and think in situations where many of my peers would freeze up or question their approach. Complexity isn’t something to fear for me. On the contrary, OTI taught me that complexity and conflict brings with it opportunity if we learn how to approach it correctly."
Ben, OTI 4 (Middle East)
Major(s): Global Economics
Ben participated in the OTI 4 trip in 2011. After that experience, he co-taught a related course with two other OTI members at UC Santa Cruz. As a student, he also studied abroad in China and participated in the UCDC program where he interned at the Center for American Progress. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz, he worked for Obama for America — President Obama's reelection campaign team — in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. He currently works at the California Department of Finance working on regulatory review.
“OTI reminds you that there are no easy answers to our complicated political questions. To make progress on these issues, you must understand them and the best way is to listen to and ask questions to people who are affected by these issues and also to people who influence these issues.This is the most important aspect that I took from OTI; they are experiences and skills that influence how I approach issues.”
Carmel, OTI 5 (Middle East)
Major(s): Global Studies, World Arts & Cultures.
Carmel is currently a Program Assistant at the National Democratic Institute in Washington, DC, where she focuses on the Institute's programs in Iraq and Syria.
“OTI has been crucial in broadening my own understanding of the different narratives that come to shape the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The backgrounds and personal stories of the other "Olives," and the various individuals I encountered during my summer trip, taught me to think critically and look past the divisive rhetoric that has historically informed this conflict. Above all, OTI has been important because it marked a period of personal growth for me. Being exposed to the undeniably human dimension of this conflict caused me to rethink my own relation to this issue both as a student and as an Israeli.”
Monica, OTI 6 (Middle East)
Major(s): International Studies
Monica is a Project Associate at Dexis Consulting Group where she focuses on USAID and Department of State contracts. Her current portfolio includes projects that focus on civil society strengthening in Kenya and promoting religious and ethnic tolerance in Ethiopia. Previously, she was a Program Officer at the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), where she supported women-led civil society peacebuilding organizations in conflict-affected countries through grants, technical assistance, and strategic advice. Monica specializes in understanding drivers of violent extremism and the utilization of women and policy to address identity-based conflicts throughout the Middle East. Specifically, she has focused on the intersection of peacebuilding, violent extremism, and gender to better understand, prevent, and mitigate conflict. After graduating from UCI, Monica attended Georgetown University where she received her MA Conflict Resolution. During her time as a graduate student, she held internships at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Churches for Middle East Peace, and the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. Also as a graduate student, Monica had the opportunity to study identity, memory, and post-conflict reconstruction in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“OTI helped solidify for me what principles would guide my career and academic pursuits. As a college student switching majors, I felt incredibly lost. I quickly found OTI and it was the factor that changed everything. OTI was my inspiration for pursuing a degree in international conflict resolution, it is what made me interested in conflict, identity, and later to build a career in this field. OTI was fundamental in shaping not only my career but my worldview. Even seven years since I traveled to the Middle East as a student diplomat, I still feel strongly that OTI was one of the best choices I ever made. I know both my professional and academic careers would be lacking if it had not been for an opportunity like this one.”
Kelly, OTI 6 (Middle East)
Kelly graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in Spring of 2014 with a self-designed interdisciplinary research degree. During her time at Cal, she worked extensively with the Olive Tree Initiative's efforts to open a space for education about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on campus and developed the Art for Social Change deCal, a political printmaking workshop. After traveling to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan in the Summer of 2013, she became deeply interested in urban planning issues such as rapid urbanization, post-conflict reconstruction and resource conservancy. Kelly Leilani's Senior thesis, "Bombing the Tomb: Street Art as Memorial in Revolutionary Cairo," looked at the aesthetic politics of memory in Egypt from 2011 - 2013 on the basis of materials in Arabic, and received high honors from her department.
After graduating from Cal, Kelly worked for the Rebuilding Alliance, an organization dedicated to community-based design projects in Palestine. As a Special Projects Manager, she raised over $100,000 to send backpacks with school supplies through the blockade to Gaza and ran the Stay Human Conference Calls with Congress program, a constituent-to-representative policy advocacy campaign for planning and development rights for Palestinian communities in Area C of the West Bank through US policy changes and diplomatic intervention from the US State Department.
From 2016-2018, Kelly attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she received her Masters in City Planning. While at MIT, she worked with the Displacement Research Action Network (DRAN), a research lab dedicated to human rights and anti-displacement advocacy, and worked on anti-displacement and humanitarian research in Nepal, Lebanon, and Boston, MA. Her passion for advocating against displacement through planning practice led her to focus her attention to the ongoing climate crisis and climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies to ensure resilient communities in the face of dire environmental change. She currently works for the MIT Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism where she conducts research on housing and sustainable development strategies in the Philippines, and as a Planner at Nitsch Engineering, a women-led engineering firm in Boston specializing in stormwater management. She chairs the Learning Committee Working Group for the Climigration Network and serves in a leadership capacity with the American Society of Adaptation Professionals Climigration and Managed Retreat Working Group.
“To this day, my friends from OTI Berkeley are my chosen family and an extension of myself. In no other group of friends do I find the compassion for the personal and professional challenges that we cultivated during our trip to Palestine and Israel in 2013 and in our dedication to growing a space for education and debate on campus. The opportunity to visit Palestine with OTI changed the course of my life by allowing me to see first-hand the inequities of the occupation, an experience which pushed me to pursue a career fighting for justice through spatial planning and policy in the US and around the world.”
Chris, OTI 7 (Middle East)
Major(s): English and Film
Chris currently works in documentary film production, primarily as an associate producer, coordinator, and researcher. He studied English Creative writing at UCLA, where he spent his time crewing on sets and creating material supporting the UCLA Community Programs Office. Upon graduating, Chris worked at Walt Disney Imagineering, making theme park attractions before returning to his roots in social impact and community media-based documentary.
As a director, he recently participated in the program, “Visual Communication’s Armed with a Camera,” directing “Trails,” a short experimental documentary, for their 37th Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
As a crew member, his credits include: “Inventing Tomorrow” (click here for a free copy of the film) (Sundance 2018, PBS POV), “A Woman’s Work: the NFL’s Cheerleader Problem” (Tribeca 2019, Independent Lens), and the Oscar-Nominated short “Walk Run Cha-Cha” (Tribeca 2019, NYT Op-Doc). He is currently a production coordinator on “Equal,” an upcoming docu-series on LGBT history for HBOMax.
During his free time, he surfs, volunteers as an educational programmer and “Core Member” with A-Doc (the Asian American Documentary Network), and as a mentor with UCLA’s SEACLEAR (Southeast Asian Campus Learning, Education, and Retention) program.
“Coming out of my undergraduate studies, OTI allowed me to re-evaluate what mattered to me and what I was allowed to do. I am a son of refugees, and OTI gave me the opportunity to delve deeper into my concerns regarding displacement, history, and memory, and to question how to actualize change in its various forms. Daily conversations regarding empathy, impact, and social equity still continue in various aspects of my personal, professional, and creative life. As a documentarian and community builder, much of what I do now grew in great part to the OTI experience.”