Yityish Aynaw, 21, is the first woman of African descent to win Miss Israel pageant
She moved to Israel aged 12 after the death of her parents
Aynaw served in the Israeli army before a friend entered her in the competition
She met Barack Obama at a state dinner in honor of his first visit to Israel as president
At just 21 years old, Yityish Aynaw has gone on a remarkable life journey from a little girl playing barefoot in an Ethiopian village to an Israeli beauty queen who’s ready to shine on the world stage.
Last February, the stunning 21-year-old grabbed international attention after becoming the first woman of African descent to be crowned Miss Israel at the country’s beauty pageant.
“To be first, you have all the attention focused on you and I have to represent my whole ethnic group because through me they see the models,” says Aynaw, who will represent Israel at the next Miss Universe contest. “Through me they see and discover our whole ethnic group.”
Aynaw was born in Chahawit, a small village in northern Ethiopia, near the city of Gondar. Her father died when she was young and when she was just 12 years old she lost her mother to a painful illness. Heartbroken, she arrived in Israel with her brother to live with their Ethiopian Jewish grandparents.
“The journey was, I think, what saved me,” she says. “Because I was deeply hurt and I wanted to escape from Ethiopia and forget everything that had happened and get on with it,” she adds. “I wanted to break away from everything and go on.”
While still a child, Aynaw was suddenly faced with a new language, a new culture and all the rest of challenges that come with starting a new life in a foreign country.
Like the estimated 125,000 Ethiopian Jews who have gone in waves over the years to Israel, Aynaw experienced the same struggle to assimilate into her new environment. But Aynaw threw herself at it, not shying away from all that her adopted country expected of her, including mastering Hebrew and serving in the Israeli army after school.
“It is three of the most significant years in my life,” says Aynaw about her time in the military. “There I learned a lot about myself; there I developed,” she adds. “I was a girl of 19 and the army gave me structure.”
After finishing her army service, Aynaw started working as a sales clerk in a clothing store. Tall and beautiful, she long had her eye on becoming a model but she never thought about taking part in a pageant. Instead, it was a friend of hers who entered her name into the Miss Israel competition.
“We were always laughing about it,” says Aynaw, who also goes by the nickname Titi. “I’d not registered during the time of my studies because I was really busy – the army is the army, I couldn’t. So when I ended she said to me ‘you have got no more excuses and I am going to register you.’”
Her win in February changed her life instantly. Within a matter of weeks, her name and image were splashed across newspapers and websites, both in Israel and abroad.
The publicity also caught the attention of one of her heroes: Aynaw was invited to an exclusive state dinner for Barack Obama in honor of his first visit to Israel as U.S. president.
“This was an incredible moment,” she says. “He was a figure that I want to emulate. I did a project on him in school and I knew what he had been through and what he had done. He was like a mentor for me, so to meet him and say hello, it was like closing a circle.”
Aynaw says she had never expected something like this would happen to her.
“Suddenly I thought about the little girl who had suffered and the little girl whose only dream was to run and play the whole day. The pain I went through; I saw it all,” she says.
As the first ever black Miss Israel, Aynaw is seen by some as a beacon of hope that racial prejudice is beginning to fade away in the country. Aynaw says that she’s never been the victim of racism but adds that there have been instances where friends of hers have been treated differently because of the color of their skin.
“I am aware of the feeling, even if it did not happen to me,” she says. “I know it [racism] exists in the country and the whole world,” adds Aynaw. “It is something that has to be dispelled.”
A pained little girl who has turned into a strong young woman, Aynaw is now hoping to carve out a successful career in fashion and also serve as a role model for her community.
And although her future seems set to be filled with glamorous days, Aynaw says ultimately her formula for a happy life rests on one thing.
“I have always dreamed of having a big family, a big house and a lot of kids,” she says. “I want to give my kids the experience I never had. That is my great dream.”