WASHINGTON — The first black woman to win the crown of Miss Israel says she believes the country has real problems with its treatment of refugees and immigrants from Africa but that the situation is improving.
"I'm not ashamed to say that there is racism in Israel; it's a problem, but it's a problem that Israel is working on and it's something that Israel is trying to fix and it's actually improving," Yityish "Titi" Aynaw, 22, told BuzzFeed in an interview at the lobby of Washington's Palomar Hotel.
"I don't feel the racism, me, exactly," Aynaw said. "But my family feels it sometimes."
Aynaw is in the United States this week on invitation of the Israeli Embassy. She traveled first to New York and then to Washington, where she met with members of the city's large Ethiopian community. She also played basketball with members of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Aynaw made headlines last year as the first Ethiopian-born woman to win the Miss Israel pageant. She attended a state dinner last year in Jerusalem and met President Barack Obama, who she says is her "role model."
Aynaw came to Israel at age 12 after the deaths of both her parents to live with her grandmother. Many Ethiopians have settled in Israel over the last 30 years as part of Israeli government programs to bring them over, including two major operations in the 1980s and 1990s that brought over thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
"I came to Netanya to live with my grandmother and I went to regular class in high school," Aynaw said. "I just went to regular class and I was integrated with everyone."
Aynaw, who went on to serve as a commander in the army after high school, said she believes integration is also a matter of choice on the part of immigrants.
"If you feel like you're going to be segregated then you end up being segregated, but if you feel like you're going to be part of the society then you'll be accepted," she said.
Israel's Ethiopian community in particular has often complained that they have been the target of racist Israeli government policies. Long-standing rumors that Ethiopian women were being sterilized without consent were partially confirmed in 2013, when Israel's health ministry admitted that doctors may have been injecting newly arrived Ethiopian female immigrants to Israel with the contraceptive Depo-Provera, without explaining what the contraceptive was. And in December 2013, an Israeli-Ethiopian legislator made waves when she revealed that the Israeli Red Cross would not let her donate blood because she was born in Ethiopia.
From 2006–2013 tens of thousands of African migrants and refugees streamed through Israel's porous border with Egypt, most of them from Sudan and Eritrea. The construction of a fence along the Israeli-Egyptian border stemmed the tide of new African migrants, and those remaining have been offered incentive packages to be returned to African countries, or given the option of going to a detention facility in Israel's south. Last month, massive protests by African nationals in Israel seeking refugee status filled the country's largest cities, while organizations including Amnesty International and the United Nations criticized Israel's current policies toward African migrants. The government says many of the asylum seekers are simply seeking a better economic situation and are not legitimate refugees — a stance that Aynaw shares.
"On the one hand we are obligated to give space to refugees and we have given space to refugees," Aynaw said. "On the other hand a lot of the refugees are not refugees of war, they're economic refugees. You reach a place where there's actually places in Tel Aviv where you can't walk around because there's rape and violence and it's a bad situation."
Aynaw said Israel needed to thoroughly go over the cases and determine who was a legitimate asylum seeker and who was not.
"We don't want people to get hurt," she said. "We know what it is to be refugees. We went through the Holocaust, we've been refugees our entire lives."
Aynaw is in the process of raising money for a community center for at-risk teens she hopes to open in her largely Ethiopian neighborhood in Netanya, called Project Titi. The idea is to provide after-school programs to kids who don't have anywhere structured to go once classes are done.
She is also hoping to launch an international modeling career and book modeling work in the U.S. and elsewhere, she said.
Aynaw is nearing the end of her term as Miss Israel, with the next pageant coming up in March. She'll be a judge at the pageant and says that it's more diverse than ever before.
"This year we have girls from everywhere," she said, citing one from France and one whose parents are from Japan.