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

After a deadly racist attack, Awet Tesfaiesus considered leaving Germany. Instead, she ran for Parliament with a “courage to change” slogan and won.

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 Germany became the second-largest destination country for migrants, after the United States, among the 38 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

During that period of rapid change, Germany 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.

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.

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After a deadly racist attack, Awet Tesfaiesus considered leaving Germany. Instead, she ran for Parliament with a “courage to change” slogan and won. 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…

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