‘I had everything I ever wanted,’ says Leon Arusi Medalia, recalling his
childhood in Mombasa.
His Israeli father, Moshe, and his Kenyan mother,
Josephine, were chefs at a hotel and later owners of their own restaurant. “I’m
the only kid of my parents, and whatever love and attention they had to give a
child was just for me.”
But his personal paradise vanished in a moment
when he was 16. It was Parents’ Day at school and Leon was annoyed that his
parents were late. Eventually, some friends of his father showed up with
terrible news: His parents had been killed in a car crash.
everything changed,” says Medalia. “No more love, no more people around me, no
more anything. In that one moment everything was taken and I had to adjust. But
it prepared me for life, to know how to go on.”
Because his maternal
grandmother lived far away in Nairobi and his parents’ children from previous
marriages had nothing to do with him, he was literally out on the street until
he met a girlfriend and her mother insisted that he come and live with them. He
supported himself working for her taxi business and later in a break-dancing
At 18, Medalia applied for a Kenyan ID, as is required at that
age. He was told that because his birth certificate had stamps identifying his
father as Israeli, he couldn’t get one. “In their eyes, I was an Israeli born in
It made sense to go to the country where he was indeed a citizen.
This proved to be legally complicated, but two years later the Israeli Embassy
arranged his journey and explained that he would have to serve at least a year
and a half in the IDF.
“I asked how much time a normal Israeli does and
they said three years. I said, ‘Okay, I also want to do three years,’ because I
thought it would be a way to learn Hebrew and teach myself the culture. And I
had always wanted to be a soldier.” He laughs. “I was very influenced by
Sylvester Stallone and Terminator movies.”
YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW
Medalia’s plane touched down on September 20, 2005. His mother’s daughter, who
had married an Israeli and was living in Tel Aviv, greeted him at the
The next week, Medalia went to Jerusalem to meet the legendary
Tzvika Levi, a veritable godfather for lone soldiers and Ethiopian immigrants.
“Everybody knows him; he’s like a huge huggy bear,” says Medalia. “He took me to
Kibbutz Na’an to start learning Hebrew. I did ulpan for six months and then went
back to Tel Aviv [to my sister], worked another six months and then rented my
own place while I waited to get into the army.”
Upon his induction on May
1, 2007, he was sent to Michve Alon up north to learn more Hebrew and to do
basic training. He passed the initial paratroop tryouts and was accepted for 20
months of rigorous training for a special forces unit. However, his Hebrew and
connection to Israeli culture weren’t quite up to par, so he was transferred to
a Givati infantry brigade. Here he found his stride despite getting into the
midst of Operation Cast Lead.
“Infantry is all about being together
because you’re the last layer of fighters. You have to really be brothers and
think about one another, so there’s a homey kind of feeling,” he
In Gaza, bombs and bullets flew around him. “You don’t know
whether to look or not.
It’s huge; it’s something else. But everyone had
their purpose and we had ours. We took down a bunch of missions and... it was so
cool being with everyone else, doing what we were trained to do.”
After his discharge, Medalia landed a job at a Tel Aviv company that
provides security and other services for VIP visitors and Israelis.
lives with a roommate in northern Tel Aviv. “It’s awesome here,” he says. “I’m
literally a minute from the beach. Everyone around me is working and it builds
my motivation to push further as well. It’s a good environment for
During the army, Medalia began studying for conversion. “I was
raised Christian, but when I started learning about Judaism I found it even more
comforting,” he says. “I like the way you have to seek God. Israelis don’t tell
you to just raise your hand and become Jewish.
You have to really go far
into it, dig in and question it, fight it as much as you need to until you
understand – experience it, because that’s the only way you will really find
out. I fell in love with that.”
He has made many friends at the synagogue
on his block, and his roommate has introduced him to others his age. He also has
Medalia dreams of studying psychology and going into the
hospitality industry like his parents.
So far he hasn’t been able to
overcome what he feels is discrimination.
“I went to look for another job
on the side as a waiter, and you know what? You won’t find a black waiter in
fancy Tel Aviv restaurants. By law they must take your details, so they do that,
but they don’t call me.”
These would-be employers are missing out. “I
know German, English, Hebrew and Swahili. I’m energetic and I grew up in
human services. But I’m not giving up. I love making people happy, so if
I don’t end up owning a company that gives services to people, I’ll be a rav
[rabbi]. I’m all about nurturing the soul and making people feel good
THE PIXELS OF LIFE
“When I came to this country I had
no photographs of my parents or home, so when someone asks to see pictures of
them I have nothing to show,” he says . “I miss that.”
To compensate in
some way, he’s taken up photography. “I love taking pictures, making memories
for myself, documenting my story.
So many small pixels come together to
make a picture, and it’s the same thing in life: details like appreciating
someone, saying ‘thank you’ and ‘I’m sorry.’ Details got me into pixels and
pixels got me into photography.”
Medalia also enjoys extreme sports and
hopes to exhibit in his own gallery someday.
“I want to stand in front of
a huge crowd of people and talk about the little things in life and how we need
to hit the brakes a little and slow down to see the things we’re
He cannot imagine living anywhere but Israel. “I see myself
here forever. When I came into the country I was given everything – money, a
place to stay. That didn’t happen in Kenya. When I was 16 I slept on the street
and got mixed up with the wrong crowd because I was so vulnerable. Here I got
everything I needed and I’m so glad this is my country.”