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First Ethiopian ‘Miss Israel’ discusses opening doors in modeling industry

Yityish “Titi” Aynaw details life story, experience as Ethiopian woman in Israel

Yityish “Titi” Aynaw, the first Ethiopian Miss Israel and a contestant for the title of Miss Universe in 2013, lectured on moving from Ethiopia to Israel, her experiences as a black model and her work advocating for the Ethiopian community of Israel at Brown/RISD Hillel on March 23. The event, hosted by Brown Students for Israel, was part of Aynaw’s national tour of college campuses in an effort to educate students about Israel, she said.

“There’s been a lot of racial tension in the world recently and definitely in Israel with the Ethiopian community,” said Anna Horowitz ’19. “I think a lot of people are able to get a lot of insight about what it is like in Israel (from her speech).”

Aynaw detailed her life story, beginning with her birth in the village of Chahawit in Ethiopia’s Gondar Province.

“I was born in a very small village without shoes, electricity, cars, candles or restrooms. Our house was one room,” Aynaw said. Aynaw’s father died in war before she can remember, and her mother died from disease 10 years later, leaving Aynaw an orphan. Remembering her mother’s dream of moving to Israel, Aynaw and her brother emigrated there from Ethiopia in 2004. “It was a dream come true because (then) I (could) go to the place where my mother wanted to go,” Aynaw said. In Israel, she and her brother lived with their grandparents, who had moved in years prior to the town of Netanya.

Never having consistently attended school in Ethiopia, Aynaw quickly immersed herself in Israeli culture at her high school Kfar HaNoar HaDati. There, Aynaw quickly learned Hebrew as fellow students dedicated themselves to teaching her new words every day. “My teacher said to my class, ‘You have a new project. It’s called Project Titi. You have to take her every day and teach her new words,’” Aynaw said. After winning Miss Israel, Aynaw launched Titi’s Project through Foundation Netanya to give under-privileged children from the Neot-Shaked neighborhood after-school activities and opportunities in the local community center such as math and computer classes, basketball and art projects.

“I was always a nerd in high school,” Aynaw joked, referencing her title as student council president, her academic success and her love of running. In school, she met her best friend, Noa, who always joked that she would enter Aynaw into the Miss Israel competition to win the prize car. “I’ll take the car and you can have the title,” Aynaw remembered Noa saying. 

After graduating from high school, Aynaw served as a lieutenant in the Military Police Corps of the Israel Defense Forces, where she had 300 soldiers under her command. After finishing her service, she received a call that she had been entered into the Miss Israel competition. “We aren’t young anymore — we need a car,” Aynaw recalled Noa saying.

In a T-shirt and flip flops, Aynaw arrived at the competition’s first round, feeling out of place among the women clad in lavish dresses and heavy makeup. Considering dropping out of the competition, Aynaw feared the stigmas associated with beauty pageant contestants and possible scrutiny from the soldiers under her command. But Noa convinced her to advance round after round until she won the title of Miss Israel 2013.

Aynaw views her success as an opportunity: “It’s not about winning the competition, but it’s about opening doors and a chance on the stage to do something and be something,” Aynaw said, discussing her desire to utilize her title’s power to create social change.

“When I won, I realized I had the power to help other people,” Aynaw said.

“Titi was the one who really opened the gate for other black models,” said Ben Abrbanel, an Israeli photographer in attendance.

Now, Aynaw is touring college campuses with the Jewish National Fund to speak about her life.

“The tour is so people know about the reality in Israel. We are a really colorful country,” Aynaw said.

Aside from modeling, Aynaw has since competed in Israel’s “Survivor” television series and even had dinner with former President Barack Obama.

Aynaw’s brother collected newspaper and magazine clippings to convince her of her success. “It took months to realize what I did. When you see it in front of your eyes, you start to realize what is going on,” Aynaw said.

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