First Black Woman in Bundestag Wants to Change Image of ‘Germanness’

BERLIN — The day after a racist extremist opened fire in two hookah bars in Germany, targeting people he thought looked “foreign,” Awet Tesfaiesus was shocked by the reaction she encountered in her workplace to the attacks that had just killed nine people.

As she watched her law firm colleagues go about making coffee and chatting as if it were just another day at the office, she felt like she lived in a different world from her white co-workers.

Ms. Tesfaiesus said that was when she knew she needed to make a fundamental change in her life.

“I felt like my back was to the wall and I just couldn’t continue,” she said.

Less than two years after those deadly attacks in Hanau in February 2020, Ms. Tesfaiesus was elected to Parliament this September as a member of the Green Party, running with a campaign slogan of “courage to change” and becoming the first Black woman in Germany to ever win a seat in the Bundestag.

Ms. Tesfaiesus, 47, was born in what is now Eritrea and arrived in West Germany as a child in the 1980s at a time when the country was still divided. In the more than three decades since, Germany has undergone an enormous transformation: Unification and the arrival of millions of new residents as the country became the world’s second-largest destination for migrants after the United States.

During that period of rapid change, Germany also made it easier for foreign-born residents and their German-born children to become citizens, but obstacles remain.

Since September’s election, there have been negotiations to form a center-left governing coalition that would include the Social Democrats and Ms. Tesfaiesus’s Green Party. If that coalition takes power, one of Ms. Tesfaiesus’s goals would be the removal of some barriers to naturalization — like dual citizenship restrictions — that prevent millions of people from voting and keep German politics from reflecting the country’s ethnic and racial diversity.

In addition to such policy changes, Ms. Tesfaiesus said she also wants to use her national profile to show people who, like her, do not “look German,” that they have a place in the country’s society, and politics.

She also hopes her new prominence will encourage more Germans to accept a reality that many avoid and that remains a taboo for many politicians to say: that Germany is a country of immigration.

“When a quarter of the population has an immigrant background, you really have to close your eyes to say that’s not the case,” she said.

The sense of a society not fully willing to accept her and her family became especially acute in the days and weeks after the Hanau attacks, Ms. Tesfaiesus said.

“When a quarter of the population has an immigrant background, you really have to close your eyes to say that’s not the case,” Ms. Tesfaiesus said.Credit…Lena Mucha for The New York Times

Many of those shot in Hanau were German citizens who, like her own 10-year-old son, were seen by some as foreigners because of the color of their skin.

Playing over and over again in her mind as she considered running for Parliament, she said, was the reckoning she would eventually face with her son if she failed to respond to the attacks.

“I wanted to be able to say that I didn’t just go to my practice and earn money when he asked me what I did to stop it,” Ms. Tesfaiesus said. “I wanted to be able to say I tried to improve his future.”

“I knew that could have been him sitting in that cafe,” she added.

Those were thoughts shared by many in Germany at the time, according to Said Etris Hashemi whose brother, Said Nesar Hashemi, was killed in the attack and who was himself shot in the shoulder and neck.

“Every immigrant, every person who had foreign roots in this country, felt assaulted after that attack,” Mr. Hashemi said. “The perpetrator was specifically looking for people who looked different.”

Mr. Hashemi, who now works to ensure there is justice for the survivors and the families of those killed, said “there were many people after the attack who completely lost their faith in politics.”

Ms. Tesfaiesus was almost one of them. Many of her nonwhite friends considered emigrating following the attacks, and she and her husband, also a lawyer, thought about moving to Belgium.

But in the end, she didn’t believe anything would be made better by leaving. She decided to double down on politics as a potential solution and set about transforming herself from a local player into a national figure.

She had first entered politics a few years earlier when it became clear that the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) would enter the City Council in Kassel, the city where she lived and worked as a lawyer, handling mostly immigration-related cases.

The decision in 2015 by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is stepping down after 16 years as the country’s leader, to allow over one million migrants into the country had fueled the AfD’s rise across Germany. Ms. Tesfaiesus wanted to confront that growing force face-to-face.

“When the AfD entered the City Council, I wanted the first Black woman to be sitting there too,” she said.

She started serving on the Kassel City Council in 2016, where she supported anti-discrimination legislation, informed by her firsthand knowledge of how racism affects daily life in Germany.

Shopkeepers still often follow her. When she called about apartments, they’d suddenly become unavailable after she mentioned her unchanged maiden name, only to become available again when her German husband called.

“I wanted to be able to say I tried to improve his future.” Ms. Tesfaiesus said of her 10-year-old son.Credit…Lena Mucha for The New York Times

She arrived in Germany in 1984, at 10, as her family sought asylum after the Ethiopian police came looking for her father, a supporter of Eritrean independence, which was gained in 1991.

Growing up in Germany, she’d stay up until midnight to watch MTV just to see a Black person on television. “You think ‘finally a Black person!’ But you still have complexes because you think ‘but I’m not American. This isn’t my culture.’”

Even before high school graduation, she had decided to pursue a career that would allow her to pay back some of the help she had received growing up from teachers and church groups, and she applied to study law with the intention of specializing in refugee cases.

After graduating from university, she passed the two grueling state exams required to practice law.

But her professional success didn’t stop her from questioning whether she was really a part of German society, a place where people still often speak to her in English, automatically assuming she must be foreign because of her skin color.

Twenty-five years ago, she faced a momentous life decision: whether to become a German citizen.

She did not believe citizenship would change how people perceived her. “My surroundings don’t see me as German whether I have a German passport or not,” she said.

“But I left my country when I was a small child and for most of my life I have lived here and speak the language better than I speak my mother tongue. I studied and have my career here. This is my homeland,” she said.

She ultimately decided that taking German citizenship would be the best way to help change the idea of what Germans look like. “The image of ‘Germanness’ is not from today, and maybe not from yesterday, either. It has a blood and earth thinking,” she said.

Ms. Tesfaiesus’s election to Parliament could help inspire other nonwhite Germans to push for better representation in the public sphere, said Anna Dushime, a journalist and survivor of the Rwandan genocide who is one of the few Black women regularly invited to discuss racial issues on German TV.

“Growing up in Germany in the late ’90s, early aughts, I would have loved to have Awet Tesfaiesus or Aminata Touré to look up to in German politics,” said Ms. Dushime, referring to another Black woman who in 2017 was elected to the state-level assembly in Schleswig-Holstein. “A lot of the ways Black and brown people are viewed in this country are based on a single story, a single stereotype, a single meme.”

Ms. Tesfaiesus hopes her new national visibility will help children from immigrant families to see what they can accomplish in the future. But she also wants Germany to recognize the change already underway.

“The country is changing as we all change. That is normal and isn’t possible to stop. I want us to actively choose this change and not just let it happen,” she said. “Change comes one way or another.”

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