“I feel at home” – Meet the first Nigerian female officer in the Israeli Defense Forces

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Tobi Cohen

Twenty-six-year-old Lt. Tobi Cohen has been hailed as one of the best officers in the Israeli Army after becoming the first and only female Nigerian in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

Lt. Cohen became the first Nigerian woman to serve in the IDF at the age of 21.

Lt. Cohen’s journey to become a soldier did not come easy considering the language barrier. “New immigrants are often embarrassed and ashamed to speak, because they may say something wrong, and I was one of them.”

“But at some point, I realized that I couldn’t go on like this. I made a lot of mistakes along the way, and it was hard, but it was worth it,” Cohen said.

She learnt Hebrew and her friends helped her to adjust into the Israeli society. According to Lt. Cohen, her father was happy about her decision to become an officer in the Israeli army.

Although she has an Israeli father, she grew up with her Nigerian mother and siblings in northern Nigeria with a quest to connect with her father, who served in the IDF as a soldier.

In a bid to follow in her father’s footsteps, at age 16, she enlisted in the army and joined a programme which sends people to Israel.

At age 17, Lt. Cohen immigrated to Israel under the framework of the Jewish Agency’s “Young Judaism” program, and joined the Metzar pre-army educational program at Kibbutz Metzar in the Golan Heights.

For Lt. Cohen, the Israeli army had been a faraway dream that she wanted to fulfill. “After a few months in the army, I already wanted to become an officer. I know it might sound strange, but I fell in love with the army,” she said.

“After a few months in the army, I already wanted to become an officer. I know it might sound strange, but I fell in love with the army.”

Before her acceptance into the officers’ training course, Lt. Cohen reportedly served as an operations sergeant in the Home Front Command and was later accepted into the officers’ training course.

She carried out her duty as a Deputy Training Officer in Haifa region where she guided people on how to act during natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires, and floods, as well as emergencies such as rocket attacks or the threat of a biological/chemical weapon.

“My mother and my entire family attended the officers’ graduation ceremony. It is very touching to be the first woman officer from Nigeria in the IDF. Obviously I have fallen in love with Israel. This is my home and I see myself continuing my life here,” she said.

Even though Israel is largely seen as anti-African for kicking out asylum seekers from the country or instituting policies that make their life even harder, including seizing wages from Africans to compel them to exit Israel, Lt. Cohen considers the country a home.

Here’s her thought on joining the Israeli army: “I think that joining the army is amazing, and gives you a different perspective on your life. No matter how long a soldier serves, even if it is for a short period of time, it is an experience that changes your life.”