Dina Ovadia, today a soldier in the IDF Spokesperson Unit, was born in Egypt not knowing she was Jewish until the age of 15. In an emotional interview published on the IDF website, Ovadia spoke about her childhood in Alexandria, the earthshaking event that changed her life, the discovery of her Jewish identity, and her immigration to Israel and integration into local society.
Going by the name Roulin Abdullah throughout her childhood, Dina always felt that she belonged somewhere and to something else, but wasn't quite sure what that was. "I attended a Muslim school, and we were made to study the Koran, but I was constantly asking myself, 'Why am I learning this?'"
Nevertheless, Dina dedicated herself to her studies and began to excel. "They they told me to start wearing a veil during Koran lessons," she recalled. "I wasn't crazy about the idea. As a child, I felt it would make me look ugly." When Dina refused to wear the veil, her parents moved her to a Christian school where she felt much more comfortable, but still not quite at home.
Dina went on to talk about her constant struggles to fit in, and secret visits to local mosques and churches, which her parents had forbidden her to enter, though without explaining the reason.
"I never imagined that I was Jewish."
The discovery of her true identity will forever be with Dina as the most traumatic event of her childhood. On what was turning out to be a normal day at home studying while her brother and cousin played on the computer, suddenly the silence was shattered by the sound of gunfire and breaking glass. "I became frantic, fearing that someone was coming for us because we were somehow different from everyone else," said Dina. "I went outside and saw five masked men, Islamic activists." Armed with clubs and rifles, the men demanded to see the master of the house, whom they labeled "a Jew," an assertion that, at the time, was incomprehensible to Dina.
"I thought to myself, 'What the hell!,'" Dina remembered. "I did not understand why they were calling us Jews."
As the men entered the house, they threw Dina's mother into the hallway, causing her to faint. "They began to shout, and I was sure they had killed [my mother]," said Dina. "Then they went upstairs and I heard shots. I was sure my brother and cousin had been murdered."
Following their rampage, the Islamists informed the family that it had several days to leave Egypt, and in the meantime could not be seen outside the house. If the children were seen going to school, they would be abducted. "Islamic activists surrounded the house and began shooting into the air, cursing us as Jews."
A few days later, Dina's grandfather assembled the whole family and revealed the shocking truth. "He explained why he had kept us from getting too close to other religions, told us that we really were Jews, and informed us that we had a very short time to get out of Egypt," she said. "He told us that we were going to Israel."
Dina had a difficult time accepting this news, especially the part about moving to Israel, a country she had been taught was the enemy.
"At school we were always taught to hate Jews and Israelis," she said. "For example, one of my Koran tests included a poem calling for the murder of Jews. My grandfather did his best to offset this by telling us Israelis were not so bad. But at school we were taught the opposite. I even once participated in a demonstration where I waved a Palestinian flag, completely unaware that I was Jewish."
The day of Dina's immigration to Israel symbolized the start of a new life. Finding herself on the airport in Tel Aviv, Dina and her family were greeted by an aunt who had fled to France with her family many years earlier. "It was weird. I did not understand the language, but I felt at peace," recalled Dina.
The family settled in Jerusalem and adopted Hebrew names. "I wanted so badly to fit in, but the first time I read the Jewish prayer book I held it upside down," she laughed. Dina's new beginning was far from easy. "One day at school I passed a girl who shouted, 'Hey, Arab girl!' And she and her friend started fighting with me and my cousin. The reception was not always pleasant."
After high school, Dina began her military service, passing between several positions before finding herself in the Spokespersons Unit, where today she manages the IDF's Arabic language accounts on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
"It's great to be able to show a positive side of the IDF to the Arab world," she said. "The best example was during the [last Gaza war] when our activities had a very big impact. Many in the Arab world were able to connect with us and come to realize that the IDF does not want to harm Arab civilians."
One day Dina hopes to return to Egypt, this time in her IDF uniform and tell the truth about Israel, especially to old friends who turned their backs on her after discovering she was Jewish. "I am Jewish, and I am proud of it."