Eliza Okoulatsongo has experienced more upheaval in her 24 years than most people suffer in a lifetime.
Born to a Russian mother and a Congolese father, she fled a bloody civil war with her family in the ’90s and was shuffled through U.N. displacement camps before making aliyah with her mother and grandmother at age 9.
Okoulatsongo, who is now an Israeli soldier, related her harrowing story last month in the Bay Area while on a trip sponsored by Friends of the Israel Defense Forces.
Wearing her green IDF uniform, the bubbly young woman told her life story, which began with two parents who formed an unlikely couple. Her Congolese father fell in love with her Russian mother while the two studied medicine outside Moscow.
“My father actually speaks better Russian than me,” Okoulatsongo said during an interview in San Francisco, describing how her parents, along with frequent relocations, enabled her to pick up six languages fluently. She rattles off Hebrew, Russian, English, French and Congolese. “Oh, and Spanish and a little Arabic,” she added, smiling.
Later the family, including her younger brother, relocated to Congo. While in school in Africa, Okoulatsongo learned she was not like the other kids. “They called me ‘whitey,’ and I knew I was different from an early age,” she said.
But the physical differences in school were not the only challenges Okoulatsongo dealt with. After the Congolese Civil War broke out in 1995, her family took to the streets to flee the rebel violence and seek refuge in temporary U.N. camps.
“There were guns and shooting — it was all very scary —and my mom was the only white person in the group,” she said.
After a few months in the displaced-person camps, Okoulatsongo’s family returned to Russia. Her mother, grandmother and brother later moved to Israel, and her father returned to Congo at the end of the war. Her parents’ marriage quickly dissolved because of problems surrounding substance abuse, she said.
Moving to Israel was an adjustment, but it was the first place Okoulatsongo said she felt at home. “The weirdest thing is that I felt very connected [when we arrived]. I was like everyone [else] for the first time, and I was very proud and lucky.”
Initially, she had no inkling of her Jewish background. “I was raised as a Christian and even baptized,” she said. “I didn’t know about being Jewish until I came to Israel.”
After starting grade school, learning Hebrew, making friends and settling into Petah Tikva, Okoulatsongo remembers that kids stopped looking at the color of her skin. “They didn’t say you’re black or you’re white,” she said. “They were just amazed that I spoke Russian and French. This is what made me really feel like I was at home.”
But soon tragedy struck again. Her grandmother died and her mother died of hepatitis C, orphaning both Okoulatsongo and her brother while they were still minors.
Following her enlistment in the IDF, Okoulatsongo was designated a “lone soldier,” a servicewoman without parents in Israel, and she joined the military police. Now a film student, she receives a full-ride college scholarship for lone soldiers from the FIDF.
Optimistic and upbeat, Okoulatsongo says she’s just thankful for her opportunities and is always looking to the future. In addition to college and work, she volunteers with Holocaust survivors. Her heroine is an elderly survivor she visits who is always happy. “No matter what you’ve been through, you’ve passed it,” she said. “It forms you, but your future depends on you and my future is in my hands.”