I first met Darion Ouliguian in Israel when we were serving as peer leaders for Passages in the Winter 2019-20 trip season. Now he is the Associate Director of Strategic Engagement for Passages, working with public universities and partner organizations to build connections between Jewish and Christians students and engage Passages alumni after their time in Israel. Darion has been to the Middle East numerous times, four times specifically to Israel. He graduated from UCLA with a BA in Arabic, a minor in linguistics, and a minor in Russian language, along with an impressive record of advocacy work. Because of the length of our conversation and my decision not to leave out any major portions of it, this interview will have two parts. Stay tuned for part two! 

Mattanah DeWitt: We met for the first time in Jerusalem, in January. That was a lot of fun, participating in Passages’ first big event. Do you want to talk about what that experience was like?

Darion Ouliguian: The big event, or meeting you? 

MD: I don’t know, either one! Let’s just start from the beginning of that day.

DO: Well the beginning of that day was amazing. I was a Fellow at that point in time, and I was running around like crazy. So that was my first morning off. I got to sleep in, which was super nice. And then you and I went out to lunch at this place called Azura in the Shuk Machane Yehuda, which was like an Iraqi, Israeli kind of place.

I thought it was an awesome time to meet you for the first time, and talk to you, because we were going to be speaking that night together at the big event. And then the food was fire!

MD: It was so good!

DO: Yeah, it was the perfect food for the weather there, because it was kind of gloomy—it was just an awesome time. Then we went walking around afterwards, shopping, trying to find knock-off Blundstones. Now I actually have the real ones. [points to the boots he’s currently wearing]

MD: Wow, way to come full circle!

DO: Totally! So basically you and I were just preparing for that night, where we were celebrating five years of Passages. They wanted to hear some student testimonials, people who had been doing some crazy cool things since their time with Passages and what not.

I remember both you and I were kind of nervous to go up and speak, and we were practicing our lines and getting ready. But that night was awesome, just to see hundreds of students coming in. There’s no room to walk around, everyone’s dancing, eating. They had a cool light show going on, and then we went up, had our 30 seconds of fame. 

What I thought was amazing was when we got to go off on the side and we both kind of had this cheerleader, Neveen*—because you had spent time with her in Israel, and then she knew my dad from when he came to Israel this last time. So it was so cool to see her cheering us on.

MD: Yeah, having a familiar face in the audience to connect with.

DO: Absolutely! It was an awesome time, totally wild.

MD: I have so many fun memories from that day! I was a Senior Fellow at the time, so it was nice to have a moment to pause.

DO: Yeah – and we got a pretty good selfie too.

MD: Oh yes! So this wasn’t your first time in Israel. You were a Fellow at the time, but you had come with Passages initially as a participant, and you had been before that as well, right?

DO: So when we were there in Israel, that was my fourth time there. Before Passages, I went with the Olive Tree Initiative—or OTI for short. That was a three-week-long, politically focused, multi-narrative, experiential journey. We went through D.C., New York, Jordan, all over Israel proper, and all over the West Bank, speaking to people from all types of society and learning about a very multi-faceted, nuanced approach to the Israeli-Arab conflict.

That was the second time I went. The first time I went was in the summer of 2016 with my home church youth group, and it was actually just like a tour through the Holy Land—pretty standard for most churches. There was definitely some overlap in terms of sites we saw with Passages, but there was no engagement with what we would call the modern state of Israel. So there was no direct or intentional engagement with the Jewish community or with the political conflict.

MD: Gotcha.

DO: Yeah, so it went from completely religious to completely political to a combination of the two, twice over!

MD: Out of all those times that you went to Israel, can you tell me some major takeaways you’ve had?

DO: During the OTI trip, it taught me that if you actually have a productive engagement with the conflict, you will leave with more questions than you came in with, and you will never look at any type of conflict in the same way, no matter what it is—whether it’s between people, between you and your siblings, or some other type of geopolitical conflict. There’s so much going on, in that there are human lives that are being impacted by that, and that is the thing that should be in the forefront of all the conversations we have.

The first Passages trip that I went on was actually when I first saw how the two aspects—[religious and political]—which seemed very distant from each other, actually played on each other beautifully. The first time solidified my connection to Israel, not just as a modern state but as a concept. The second time was me learning how to care about the humans who are there. And then Passages showed me that you as a Christian have a duty to care for these people, and to care for the justice and righteousness to come from this land.

This fourth time [recently] was like a cherry on top, where it was me taking all the knowledge and experience that I had and being able to come before other students who were just as eager. Even though I had been to many of the sites we visited one, twice, and even three times before, I got to live vicariously through them and got to watch them experience it all for the first, I realized that people experience this land and country in so many different ways. They could be in the exact same spot where I stood so many times before and see something vastly different. And that was something that just added another layer of nuance and complexity.

 MD: Yeah, that’s really special. It’s one thing to learn something, and it’s another to be a facilitator of that same learning experience. It becomes bigger—you can experience it yourself all over again but through a whole different lens.

DO: Totally.

MD: So, I know you’ve been involved with Hillel during your time at UCLA. Were you involved before you went on your first trip to Israel?

DO: After going to Israel with my church in the summer of 2016, I started my freshman year at UCLA that fall. When I left Israel for the first time, there was nothing political, right? It was a land, a people, a culture, food, language that I fell in love with and wanted to engage with. I come onto campus and learn that it’s everything but. It’s only political, no one talks about any of the beautiful aspects, the culture, nothing. It’s simply Israel, politics, done.

So how I got involved with Hillel. When I started going to UCLA, the one thing in my mind was I have to go back to Israel. In my first week of my Arabic class, there was an Israeli girl, and she mentioned that she spoke Hebrew. I had taught myself a little bit of Hebrew when I went to Israel the first time, so I was like, ok, I’m going to impress this girl and try to talk to her in Hebrew.

So I start talking to her and Hebrew, and she like freaks out—in a good way. She was like, “Oh my gosh, you went to Israel, you know Hebrew, you’re not Jewish, and you loved it? You have to come to Hillel, meet our Israel fellow, she’s going to want to buy you coffee…” All I heard from that was “free coffee” and “Israel fellow,” and I was like where is this place, and I will come tomorrow.

So I met up with the Israel fellow at the time, her name was Lipaz. She bought me coffee and we just chatted. She was like you are the first non-Jewish person that I’ve had a conversation like this with, on this campus.

At that point in time is when I started learning that it was pretty politicized and I wanted to have a larger understanding. So I went to Bruins for Israel events, Students Supporting Israel Events. I went to Students for Justice in Palestine events, just trying to get as much of a well-rounded view of this new conflict that I didn’t know really anything about. The thing that resonated the most for me was what Bruins for Israel was espousing. They were saying, “We don’t care what you think about Israel. We just want to talk about it, and we want to normalize having conversations about this, and to talk across the divide. We want to also showcase that Israel is more than a political conflict—that it’s a people, with a history, with a language, and a culture.” So I saw something productive, combined with what I originally fell in love with about Israel.

From that point on, I just got more and more and more involved, and kept going back [to Israel]. And that’s actually how I ended up becoming the first non-Jewish president of Bruins for Israel, which was the first non-Jewish president of a pro-Israel org at UCLA. So that was wild.

MD: Wow, that is so cool. I love that. So whenever you spoke to Yael in Hebrew, that was such a huge point of connection for her. Because language is such a huge part of culture, is that one of the reasons why you chose Arabic as your major? If not, what was?

DO: Yes and no. So I learned that I was really good at learning languages when I was a sophomore in high school. I was studying two languages—Spanish and French—when I was in high school and had no problem with either one of them. So this is something I decided I wanted to do and pursue further.

I knew that I wanted to do something internationally-focused, so when I was thinking about ‘Okay, what can I do that’s language-focused and that allows me to also make a comfortable living?’ So I was thinking of working for the Department of State, so doing something within either diplomacy or intelligence. The diplomacy aspect was the one that really caught me the most, I like just talking to people and having those kinds of conversations, and I thought it would be an amazing thing to represent my country abroad. 

So when thinking of what languages to study, Arabic and Russian, they’re both extremely marketable, extremely important, cover a huge population of the world, and are also languages that tend to be “at odds” with the West or with America. So it was kind of a way to make myself marketable and hopefully have some future success, but also being able to access and unlock a population of the world that normally wouldn’t react extremely positively to the West or to Americans specifically. So I understood that engaging with somebody in their mother tongue is a completely different level.

I think it was actually Morgan Freeman who said this, ‘If you speak to a man in a second tongue you’re speaking to his brain, if you speak to a man in his mother tongue you’re speaking to his heart.’ And so that was kind of my driving force. This is why I learn different languages, because I want to connect with those people on that level.

MD: That’s amazing. You see that in Israel too, when someone speaks to a person in Hebrew, they just kind of come alive in a really special way because it’s not just what they speak, it’s part of who they are.