In 1991, four-year-old Yaros Shigot boarded a plane from Ethiopia to Israel. All she remembers from the flight - which was part of Operation Solomon, during which 14,325 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel - was seeing a "big white bird" for
the first time in her life.
Shigot's next memory is of landing in Israel, where she received her first pair of shoes. With those shoes she took her first steps in the country that has become her home. Her new life in Israel and a promise she made to her family that she would become a success, have led her far beyond her imagination. Today she is a pioneer in the IDF, one of the first female Ethiopian officers in the Israeli Navy.
Lt. Shigot is the head of a navy department responsible for assisting soldiers from low socioeconomic or criminal backgrounds integrate into the military. During their service, the soldiers are also given the opportunity to take professional courses and receive training in fields they can work in following their military service.
With her background as a new immigrant and as one of seven children - most of whom are unemployed - Shigot has the necessary experience to do her job. She is a responsible for 306 soldiers, some of whom have criminal records related to drugs and violence.
Her appointment to the post represents a form of closure for Shigot and her mother, who raised her seven children on her own after her husband passed away in Ethiopia. The younger Shigot admits that as a new immigrant, she never would have thought that one day she would be wearing the starched white uniform of the Israeli Navy on a daily basis, much less the gold stripes indicating her rank.
"This is a dream come true for me and my family," she says in an interview in her small office at navy headquarters in Tel Aviv. "Most of my siblings came here and were already too old to go to school and get an education. They made me promise that I would become the family's success story."
Shigot says that part of her decision to become an officer was to prove to herself and the rest of the country that she could be just like the average Israeli. "I wanted to feel like I belong here just like everyone else," she says. "I wanted to prove that I am capable of doing everything that other people can do."
This strong will to succeed is what Shigot is now trying to instill in her 306 soldiers, some of them neighbors from Ashdod and others Ethiopians who immigrated to Israel and have had difficulty integrating into their new surroundings.
"Giving soldiers extra support can change an entire world," she says, jumping to the proof behind her declaration: On Monday, one of her soldiers, who entered the IDF with a criminal record, received an award for exemplary service at the navy's training base in Haifa.
"These soldiers could easily have received exemptions from military service due to their problematic backgrounds," she explains. "But with a little willpower and the right direction, these soldiers are given a chance in the IDF where they will obtain the skills needed to have a better chance at having a better life."
Shigot, who hopes one day to study social work or psychology, takes responsibility for these "problematic" soldiers from the day they enlist in the IDF. She finds them positions that suit their needs and personalities. Some serve as combat troops in the navy and others as technicians or in desk jobs.
Shigot says she hasn't encountered any racial slurs or negative comments against Ethiopians since she began her military service nearly a year ago. The only time she felt nervous about her background, she says, was during her interview to get accepted to the Officer's Course. Due to cultural differences, she explains, Ethiopians have a tendency not to look into the eye of the person to whom they're speaking.
"I was a nervous wreck," she says, recalling the days before the fateful interview. "I practiced 'talking eyes' in front of the mirror to make sure" she would make eye contact with her interviewer.
Her department also provides the soldiers with courses to help them complete high school matriculation exams. The IDF also sponsors professional courses - cooking, electrical engineering and bookkeeping - that provide the soldiers with profession skills once they complete their military service. The most popular course is called Tadmor, during which the soldiers spend six months of their military service studying to become chefs.
Shigot says her experiences as a new immigrant, as well as her Ethiopian heritage, assisted her in better understanding the needs of her soldiers.
"I find something in common with each one of my 306 soldiers," she says. "Everyone has a different story and different troubles, but I find myself relating to all of them."