Arrivals: Unforeseen life

Leon Medalia learned he was Israeli by chance, but today he is here by choice.

Leon Medalia 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Leon Medalia 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘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.
“And then 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 troupe.
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 Kenya.”
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.”
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 airport.
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 explains.
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.
He 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 me.”
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 a girlfriend.
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 about themselves.”
“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 missing.”
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.”