Yityish Aynaw travelled far to be crowned Miss Israel. She tells Caron Kemp about her rags-to-riches life
Her life story reads like it could be straight out of a Disney fairytale. Raised in relative poverty, orphaned as a child and shipped off from her childhood home in Ethiopia to start a new life in Israel – where she was recently crowned the country’s first black beauty queen – this real-life rags-to-riches tale is still one of amazement for Yityish Aynaw.
Born in a small town near Gondar in northwest Ethiopia, Yityish – known as Titi – spent much of her early childhood playing in the mud with her older brother and making cloth dolls. She never found out what killed her father when she was just two, but when her mother also died of a sudden illness when Titi was 10, she was sent to live with her grandparents in their immigrant neighbourhood within Netanya.
Despite the obvious language barrier and culture shift, Titi thrived at the religious boarding school in which she was enrolled and was soon elected as student council president. And her obvious leadership skills were put to further use when she found herself as a military police commander in the army. Aged just 19, she was responsible for some 90 soldiers, teaching them how to use weapons and detect bombs.
This grit and determination to succeed and be strong is, according to Titi, a direct result of her difficult start in life.
“I was a very stubborn student,” she admits. “If I did not understand something the teacher said in class, I did not let her continue to teach until I understood what she explained.
“I knew from an early age that I was alone, and if I would not take care of myself, no one else would do it for me. So I fought every day to learn and to understand.”
But since being discharged from the army last September, the 5ft 9ins beauty had been working at a shoe store to earn a living. It was only when her best friend Noa, whom she met at boarding school and who she credits with teaching her to speak Hebrew like a native, suggested she enter the Miss Israel pageant that Titi’s life changed dramatically.
“I thought it was about time that Israel had an Ethiopian beauty queen,” she explains. “I really wanted to be a model and I wanted to represent Israel. The competition seemed like a good way to achieve these two things.”
And notwithstanding the pageant director apparently stating that Titi was not the most classically beautiful of the contestants, four months ago – almost 30 years since the first wave of Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel – the country declared one of them their most beautiful inhabitant.
But for a country founded on the principle of being a homeland for all Jewish people, Israel has regularly found itself in the spotlight for its treatment of the Ethiopian community. For Titi, her newfound title can only be a positive thing. “The Ethiopian community is very closed here in Israel,” admits the new Miss Israel. “It can, of course, be difficult to accept change, find a job and learn a language when you are used to a different life. But since winning the pageant there have been more positive stories in the media about us and I hope that soon people will see beyond skin colour.”
Perhaps it was her sudden rise in the Israeli celebrity stakes or her strong desire to build bridges between the respective communities in her home country, but she once again made the headlines recently when the White House requested her presence at an official state dinner in Jerusalem with Barack Obama during his four-day trip to the Middle East.
For the 22-year-old orphan, it is almost too much to comprehend.
“When the President of Israel introduced me to President Obama, he said that I was the Queen of Sheba of today. It was very exciting,” she reminisces. “Just 10 years ago, I was living in a small Ethiopian town running barefoot in the woods with my big brother. I feel like I am living in a dream and yet I had never dared to dream. I have to pinch myself to remind me this is now my reality.”
That said, Titi is very aware of the story that brought her to where she is today. And following the completion of her army service, when her friends were travelling the world, she made the painful visit back to Ethiopia, where she spent a month coming to terms with her past.
“I decided to use my savings to build my mother’s gravestone,” she explains. “The tomb is not visited much, because none of her family live nearby, but it was still important for me to invest in it and preserve it. I had to go there because I needed to close this part of my life.”
The headstone, within the Jewish graveyard in Addis Ababa, now bears a Hebrew verse from Psalms next to an inscription in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. This nod to her heritage is indicative of the way she continues to live her life.
“Israel is my country,” she affirms. “I immediately felt at home here – even if not easy, it is still my home. I love the sea, the landscape, the human warmth, just everything about it.”
And it is to represent Israel that Titi, who is now working as a full-time model, will travel to Indonesia in September for the 63rd Miss World Pageant.
“I am proud to be representing the Ethiopian community of Israel,” she concludes. “This is my home and I know
I still have a lot to prove, but I feel very blessed and am very thankful for all of these amazing opportunities.”