Simcha Asrasy is a dreamer who’s making her dreams come true. At 26, the former Israeli army officer is in college now and plans to start her own business.
That’s a long way from her childhood in Israel, when her family of Ethiopian immigrants lived in poverty and her parents divorced.
"When I was a child, I didn’t have a dream," Asrasy admits.
She was telling her story of success recently on a visit to New York, part of a two-week "reverse solidarity mission" sponsored by Amit. She and Miri Uziel, 18, a fellow graduate of Amit schools in Israel, toured Jewish communities in eight U.S. cities, describing life in Israel during the current round of Palestinian violence, surprising non-Jews who had never met a black Jew, thanking American Jews for supporting Amit programs.
Amit, an Orthodox women’s organization, sponsors a network of educational and cultural activities in Israel.
Asrasy talked about her life: how she left Ethiopia via Sudan, in 1980, at 4 on her father’s shoulders, before the Operation Moses and Operation Solomon airlifts, because he didn’t want to be drafted into the Ethiopian army; how they reached Israel a year later; how they settled in a small apartment near Beersheva; how she cleaned homes to raise money for her family; how an Amit program in Petach Tikvah took her in; how she entered the Israeli army and became a lieutenant.
It was in seventh grade, with growing confidence, that she began to dream. "My dream was to finish high school," she says.
Asrasy finished high school and dreamed of the army. Her mother was upset that she wanted to be a soldier. "I convinced her," she says.
Asrasy, whose first language was Amharic, switches effortlessly from English to Hebrew, which she began learning in kindergarten and now speaks with the accent and staccato cadence of a Sabra.
"I’m not the first soldier," not the first female Ethiopian immigrant to become an officer in the Israeli army, she says, dispelling a rumor that circles around her. Her aunt Rina was a lieutenant, too. But the pair might be the first women in the same Ethiopian family to become officers.
Army service was "very difficult … sometimes," Asrasy says. Combining teaching with her other army duties, she challenged the army’s macho stereotypes. "All the time you have to prove yourself."
Now an economics and business student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, she maintains "above average" grades and works at a nearby absorption center counseling young olim from Ethiopia.
Picked for the Amit solidarity mission here after an extensive screening process, she is an Ethiopian success story.
Her secret of success?
"Do you know who’s above," she answers rhetorically, looking toward the heavens. Unlike many young Ethiopians who have drifted from religious practice after coming to Israel, Asrasy still is observant. "I believe in it."
At the absorption center she tells the kids to stay in school, stay off the streets, "be patient with your parents."
"Never mind where you came from: you can succeed," Asrasy says. Like she did and other Ethiopian immigrants have done. "I’m not the only role model.
"You have to help yourself," Asrasy says. "All the time, I’m talking with the children about the future."
Asrasy says she’s not surprised by the twists and turns in her life: "Life teaches me not to be surprised."