The 2013 Miss Israel spoke about her personal struggles and the joy she found as an immigrant in Israel at the University of Maryland on Wednesday as part of a five-campus tour to raise awareness about the country.
Born and raised in Ethiopia, Yityish "Titi" Aynaw immigrated to Israel when she was 12 and went on to serve as a commander in the Israeli Defense Forces. Aynaw made history in 2013 when she became the first black woman to win an Israeli pageant.
"People don't know too much about Israel and they see this black girl model Miss Israel speaking — I like to see the surprise on their faces," Aynaw said in a Diamondback interview. "[The students] are really interested in what I have to say, and that they got to learn about Israel in different ways."
The Jewish National Fund brought Aynaw to campus, said Jacob Orbach, a campus fellow for the Jewish National Fund. She spoke to students on immigration, military life in Israel and women's rights in the country in Stamp Student Union's Colony Ballroom on Wednesday evening.
"A lot times, the media doesn't get the right story, and bringing someone, like Titi, who isn't in politics, but just a good role model of a person to have speak to multiple audiences and cater to many people at once is very beneficial for a place like a university," said Orbach, a sophomore enrolled in letters and sciences.
During her interview, Aynaw said she grew up in humble beginnings, and immigrated to Israel at age 12 with her younger brother to live with their grandmother and find a better life in a different place. She had to learn to grow up fast, as her father died when she was 2 years old and her mother passed away from an illness when she was 12, she added.
"In Ethiopia, it was really different to live in a village," she said. "We didn't have cars, computers, phones … it's just really different, really strange from Israel."
While in Israel, Aynaw made it a priority to get the most out of her education.
"I wanted to get good grades in high school to be able to go to university and to get a better job," she said. "When you are an immigrant and you don't have a degree or education, you work so like 24 hours … and not get breaks or enough money to raise your families."
In terms of women's rights in Israel, Aynaw told The Diamondback she could not be more proud of her country. While women in government had been very uncommon in Israel, more women are beginning to take higher positions in the country's politics, she added.
"What's beautiful in our country is that they have groups for everyone," she said. "We can speak, protest and write to the government. Things change. Being a woman, it's great."
After the results of Tuesday's presidential election, Aynaw said she hopes President-elect Donald Trump will continue to maintain the strong relationship the United States has with Israel.
"I know that it's really crazy here and that people are taking this personally," she said. "I hope he will continue the good relationship with Israel, and I think that as an Israeli, it's really important for me."
Shira Gabay, an employee with Maryland Hillel, said hearing Anynaw's personal story on Wednesday was inspiring.
"I'm an Israeli, and she is a good example of a true success story in Israel as a minority," Gabay said. "All of us can learn from her story. We don't hear about these hard topics every day, and to hear her, as she is part of the Ethiopian society was amazing for me and it felt good."