Face your struggles, former Miss Israel tells students
By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
Titi Aynaw is a tall, beautiful model whose face is on billboards, but she owns only one photograph of herself as a child. She was a tomboy who ran barefoot with friends growing up in Ethiopia, where her family had no electricity or television and only dreamed of cars.
When she arrived at the Miss Israel contest a few years later at the urging of a friend who wanted her to share the winnings of a new automobile, she didn’t bring a swimsuit and had never applied lipstick. She showed up in flip flops.
When judges asked her on national television why she entered the contest, she told them her best friend needed a car. It was true, but the follow-up is what hooked them:
“What is beautiful about Israel is we are from all over the world. We all have beauty in our own ways. Tall or short or black is also beautiful.”
Aynaw won and became the first Ethiopian Jew and first black Miss Israel in 2013. On Friday, she told her Ethiopia and Israel story at Grand Canyon University.
Rev. Donald Glenn, GCU’s Multicultural Manager, said Aynaw’s talk is part of an attempt to bring diverse stories to campus, because “stories are important to understanding.”
Aynaw’s tour is also part of the Jewish National Fund’s efforts – at 80 campuses the past three years – to share the “other side of Israel than what the media depicts, the conflict and politics,” said Amy Cytron, Director of Campus Engagement for the fund. “Everything about Titi’s story is positive.”
All Aynaw knew of Israel was its negative news before she moved there with her brother to live with grandparents at age 12.
“It was a dream come true. I could forget what happened to my mom,” she said of the death of her mother from an illness when she was 9.
Israel schoolmates not only helped her learn Hebrew — one word each day — but saw her ability to run fast and enlisted her for the running team, where she excelled.
“Every chapter I tell myself, you are going to do the best you can,” she told the group of 20 students who heard her speak in GCU Arena.
That meant that given the choice between required national service or the army after graduation, she chose the army just “to see if I could do it.” She excelled at that, too, and quickly rose to leadership.
“I was the first lieutenant, the only girl one, the only black one,” she said. “It was really challenging. The boys always tried to test you if you can do it, if you are strong enough, if you are smart enough.”
She led them to quickly react at tough Palestinian checkpoints in Israel and learn how to identify terrorists or drug dealers among the people just passing to earn a living for their families.
“After 3½ years in the army I was in charge of over 300 soldiers and the head of my unit. I was only 21,” she said. “It was hard. But there are no races in the army in Israel. I was in charge of all white, all boys, and I was black, and I was a woman. If you are good, they promote you because you are good, no matter who you are.”
She left service and, with her new confidence, decided to visit her mother’s grave in Ethiopia “and be OK with the fact I lost her.”
“So I stood at my mother’s grave and told her, ‘I’m going to live my life the best I can.’ She died really really young and I’m going to live my life for her because she didn’t have this opportunity.”
She turned to the students to tell them what she learned by age 28, “living two different lives.”
“This is life. We have our struggling. The most important is to take your struggle, look it in the eye, and say this is my life, make the best of it, no matter what. Nobody’s life is perfect. The most important thing is to stay positive.”
That spirit led her to join a contest with no experience and give the judges a message on beauty they rewarded.
“I also walked in a swimsuit and smiled,” she joked.
Aynaw went on to be a successful model and television personality, becoming the first black woman on a billboard in the country, she said, and helping other black women break into the profession.
She also wanted to give back to the community and helped launch a center for immigrant children.
President Barack Obama took notice. He arranged a private visit with her during a trip to Israel, and the Aynaw told Obama that he was a person who always inspired her.
“I was standing there thinking that it was nine years ago I was running in Ethiopia with no shoes,” she said. “Now I was standing here.”
Her message is crossing to America now.
“I believe we are all beautiful in our own way. Beauty comes in all colors and sizes,” she said.
And, yes, she won the car and rode with her friend in it to the mall.
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.