By Martin Vennard*
It’s been an astonishing three weeks for Yityish Aynaw, an immigrant orphan from Ethiopia, who became the first black Miss Israel last month, and has now been invited to Thursday’s gala dinner with visiting US President Barack Obama.
When Yityish Aynaw arrived in Israel as a 12-year-old, winning beauty contests and dining with presidents was as far from her thoughts as her native Ethiopia is from her adopted land.
Her mother had just died, leaving her an orphan – her father had died years earlier. So her mother’s parents, who were among thousands of Ethiopian Jews already living in Israel, arrived in Addis Ababa to fetch Yityish and her older brother.
In their new home, they had to learn Hebrew from scratch.
“It wasn’t easy because I couldn’t speak the language and I was put into a regular class without any help,” Aynaw, now 21, told the BBC World Service.
“It was a new language. It was a new culture. Quite often children even laughed at me,” she says, though she adds that she also met many kind people.
But Aynaw was determined to succeed in her adopted country.
“I felt a responsibility to prove myself in everything I did and to improve myself as well,” she says.
After school, like most other Israelis, she performed military service. She then stayed on in the a Before she was selected as Miss Israel on 27 February, she was a manager in a shoe shop in Netanya.
“For people from my country of origin it is a source of great pride,” she says of her new title.
“He fought for justice and equality, and that’s one of the reasons I’m here. I want to show that my community has many beautiful qualities that aren’t always represented in the media,” she said at the time.
But another hero, she told the BBC, was the US president.
“I was influenced and inspired by Obama. Like him, I was also raised by my grandmother. Nothing was handed to me on a plate and like him 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,” she says.
“I couldn’t believe that one of the most influential people in the world, the head of such an important state, would invite someone like me to attend such an important event. It has only just now sunk in and I can understand that it’s happening.
“It is a great honour not just for me, but the other people that I represent.”
Aynaw says she hopes her victory will “achieve the acceptance of everyone in Israel”.
Ethiopians often complain about discrimination when it comes to jobs, education and housing. There were even allegations last year that some new Ethiopian immigrants have been given contraceptive injections against their will.
Aynaw’s victory “was very important for all Israeli society”, says Penina Tamanu-Shata, one of two Ethiopian Israelis currently serving as a member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
“Her victory is great for us because it shows that the most beautiful woman is black and that people accept difference. Yityish won, but Israeli society also won. Her victory made a statement. She showed there are no limits.”
Tamanu-Shata says the fact that the contest was shown on prime-time television was important as most Israelis encounter the Ethiopian community – just 120,000 strong – through the media.
“Sometimes the discrimination is under the surface. Most Israelis say they love the Ethiopian community, but there are still problems,” she says.
“I think the situation is getting better, but we still have a lot of work to do.”