U.S. President Barack Obama has extended an invitation to Yityish Aynaw, the first black Miss Israel, to attend a state dinner hosted at Israeli President Shimon Peres’ home, reports the Guardian. It’s only three weeks since the 21-year-old Ethiopian Israeli was announced winner of the beauty pageant that has run uninterrupted for 63 years.
Now Aynaw can look forward to dining alongside the country’s dignitaries and an American President she considers one of her role models. “I was influenced and inspired by Obama,” she told the BBC. “Like him, I was also raised by my grandmother … and I also had to work very hard and long to achieve things in my life. To this day, he inspires me just as he inspires the rest of the world.” According to Aynaw, she has more in common with the U.S. President than one would imagine: “I’m the first black Miss Israel to be chosen and [Obama] is the first black American President. These go together,” she told the Jerusalem Post.
Aynaw was born in the town of Gondar in northwest Ethiopia. When she was 1 year old her father died, and 10 years later, after her mother died, she was sent to live with her maternal grandparents, who had immigrated to Israel. Growing up, she heard stories of Israel — the land of “milk and honey” — but life in a new country, learning a new language, was a huge challenge for the 12-year-old. “It wasn’t easy because I couldn’t speak the language and I was put into a regular class without any help,” Aynaw told the BBC.
During the 2013 Miss Israel competition, Aynaw told the judges that the time had come for a black woman to wear the crown. “It’s important that a member of the Ethiopian community win the competition for the first time,” she told the panel. “There are many different communities of many different colors in Israel, and it’s important to show that to the world,” she added, according to the Guardian.
She also decided to take part in the competition using her real Ethiopian name. When the Miss Israel contest first began, some contestants chose to use “pure” Hebrew names over their ethic identities, notes online magazine Tablet, whereas Aynaw was determined to use her birth name. “I was born sick, but my mom believed I had a future,” she says. Yitayish is Amharic for look, or as Aynaw explains it, “looking toward the future.”
There are an estimated 120,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel, and they frequently complain of being discriminated against, reports the BBC. Indeed, some have reportedly taken to calling Aynaw “toffee queen,” instead of yoffee (Hebrew for beauty) queen. Nevertheless, Semai Elias, a spiritual leader in the Ethiopian-Jewish community, is optimistic that Israeli people will come around. “There is hope that Israeli society has gotten a little bit more open,” he told Tablet.