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Kasa Geto, a 12th-grade student from Holon whose family immigrated from Ethiopia in 1991, looked a bit surprised by the tumult that erupted at Tel Aviv University yesterday in the first moments of the Dan David Prize ceremony. But Geto, one of three first-place winners of the "Name Your Hero" essay competition for Israeli high school students, took a deep breath and plunged into her tale of the racism she faced as an Ethiopian and about the self-hatred she felt as a result.

"Martin Luther King's story is the story of my life," said Geto. "I thought I would be likely to be damaged by the essay, that I wasn't sure I was ready to expose my weak points like this. But then I realized that this is also the struggle of my cousin, of my siblings, who also dream the dream of integration, experience the same racism - and don't talk about it."

The Unit for Science-Oriented Youth at Tel Aviv University has been working with the Dan David Prize to run the essay competition for the past two years. This year, senior faculty members at the university selected the best 12 essays out of some 500 submissions, and selected Geto's as one of the top three (who tied for first place). Each of the three receives NIS 10,000; Geto suggested that the prize money go to Tebeka, an advocacy group for the legal rights of the Ethiopian Israeli community.

In the winning essay, Geto writes that she heard about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for the first time this year, "after a lecture that my cousin and I gave about the racism of the 21st century, the same racism that's kicking and breathing from the past and that screams into the present."

'Scared to look in the mirror'

After describing the American civil rights activist briefly, Geto writes: "Without my Amharic name and the color of my skin, many would have thought that I was born in Israel ... For two years I have been lecturing about racism toward my ethnic group. Many say that it can't be that primitive discrimination, which stems from ignorance, still exists. If that's the case, you tell me: How is it that for years I was scared to look in the mirror? How is it that only after so much pain I was prepared to accept myself as black? How could it be that today, in the 21st century, the gates of schools in Israel slam shut in the faces of Ethiopian children?"

Since immigrating to Israel, the Geto family has lived in a trailer site near Acre, in Nahariya and in Holon, where they have been since 1996.

"My neighborhood was a neighborhood of whites," writes Geto. "We were the first Ethiopian family in the neighborhood, and I was apparently the first Ethiopian girl in the class and in the school."

"When no one wanted to sit next to me, I hated myself," she writes. "When no one invited me to birthday parties, I sat in a room and cried about who I am. I would stand for hours on the rim of the bathtub, looking at the mirror, making faces and trying to find the part of me that was defective. I never found anything other than the different skin color. I dreamed of being white."