Beauty queen returns to Ethiopia to encourage aliya

Named for the city of Jerusalem, Shani Mashasha dreamed of moving to Israel as a young girl.

shani mashasha 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy photo)
shani mashasha 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
Shani Mashasha's aliya story reads almost like Cinderella. The Ethiopian-Israeli actress and model came to Israel at seven with her father and stepmother steeped in romantic stories about Israel and "Yerushalem," the Amharic name for Jerusalem given to her as a baby. Last week, 17 years after her arrival in Israel, Mashasha returned to Ethiopia as a beauty queen, speaking as "Miss Aliya" to Ethiopia's Jewish community. "It's not my first time visiting Ethiopia, but this visit really moves me," Mashasha said in a telephone interview in the days before her trip. Crowned Miss Aliya several months ago in a televised beauty competition for Israeli immigrants, Mashasha is serving on the trip as an Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia - part of her prize for winning the Jewish Agency-sponsored pageant. The trip is Mashasha's fourth to Ethiopia since she left the country for Israel as a little girl. "It's not a regular visit," she said. "It makes me feel really good to contribute my knowledge and explain to [Ethiopian Jews] how life is in Israel, what my experience was like, how you have to behave here. It's different from my other visits - I'm doing something useful." The 24-year-old beauty admits that hers is a story of unusual success among Ethiopian immigrants, a fact she attributes to persistence and a positive attitude. Mashasha, who adopted the more typically Israeli name Shani after arriving in Israel, was discovered by a modeling agency at 15 while a student at a religious high school for girls in Haifa, where her exotic looks and singing and acting abilities caught the attention of faculty and students. She has since appeared in commercials for the national lottery, Elite coffee and pain relief medication, as well as in fashion catalogs and on the runway. She has also acted in Ethiopian theater in the city for which she was named, Jerusalem. Despite her success, Mashasha says she learned quickly that Israel wasn't the fantasy world she envisioned as a girl. In her early days in the country, she and her family lived in a Tiberias absorption center that didn't match the idyllic living conditions she'd imagined. After serving in the army as a human resources coordinator, Mashasha rented an apartment on her own in Tel Aviv while supporting herself and her mother's family back in Ethiopia. Mashasha's mother, a former model, had stayed behind when her daughter left for Israel, ultimately having five additional children during her second marriage. Mashasha's mother and stepfather died seven years ago. "I don't think I've had any more luck [than other immigrants]," Mashasha said of her aliya experience. "I just think that I knew not to let things make me despair, not to break. If I want something, I'll persist." This, she says, would be her message to prospective immigrants in Ethiopia. And her own big dream? "Hollywood," she said. "For sure."