In Berlin, 11-year-old Leli came running to her home, digging her nails in her flesh so hard that blood was almost drawn. Tears were running down Leli’s face as she fell into the arms of her mother, Tsion Letta-Teferra, an Ethiopian woman who had lived in Germany for 16 years.
“My daughter had just come from the house of the old lady who lived next door,” says Letta-Teferra. “The old lady told my daughter that she is dirty, and that’s why she has brown skin. Leli was trying to scratch her skin off.”
In July of 1993, Letta-Teferra packer her things, closed the door to her Berlin home for the last time, and moved to Canada with her daughter and her husband.
“I left Germany because of the racism, because of the feeling of hatred from the Germans,” she says. “I feared the Neo-Nazi violence, and how the racism all around us was affecting my daughter. I didn’t want her growing up there.”
Letta-Teferra had gone to Germany in 1978 and had studied psychology at the University of Maryland in Berlin. The university was an escape from the dangers of war in her home country of Ethiopia.
“In my country, they put you in prison easy,” she says. “Walking on the streets you would get shot. We had bullet holes in our home.”
Letta-Teferra always saw living in Germany as a temporary situation. After one week there, she says, she wanted to leave.
“People are always pushing you, [they] don’t looking in your eyes,” she says. “Human touch is not usually there. They are always complaining. I think they have everything. They are lucky they live in a safe place.”
She lived the first 11 months in Bonn, and then 15 years in Berlin. Letta-Teferra says Berlin is better because it’s more accepting of those from other cultures. She says this is because “Berliners are from all over.”
Despite this, Letta-Teferra was never able to make Germany feel like a second home to her.
Every year someone would tell her, “Next year you will go.” Her neighbours and people who worked in stores would ask her, “When are you leaving?” When she came, she didn’t need a visa but had to report to the Foreigner Police, also known as the Auslander Police. This branch is designated to deal only with foreigners. Auslander is the German word for foreigners. Letta-Teferra says she thinks auslander only refers to those who are of colour and from third world countries.
“Auslander has a negative connotation,” she says. “The Germans prefer black Americans to black Africans. They don’t call black Americans auslanders. You definitely get the message that it’s bad to be black and from ‘dirty’ Africa.”
In Berlin, a German cab driver that did not want to be named says Germans don’t consider Scandinavians or Dutch people to be auslanders.
“They are more accepted, Germans like them because they look more like them,” he says.
Auslanders now need a visa because of a change in the law a month after Letta-Teferra went to Germany. Without a visa or papers that are in order, auslanders are sent to prison.
“Everyone’s like the police here, even the neighbours,” she says. “They ask you questions.”
Letta-Teferra says the laws of the country tell the Germans that they can do anything to auslanders. She tells a story of an African girl friend that was a friend of a German man who was married but separated. The estranged wife of the man found out about the relationship and was angry.
“The wife went to the Auslander police and told them that her husband and the girl were having an affair,” says Letta-Teferra. They put this information in the girl’s file so when her visa is needed to be prolonged, it wouldn’t happen.”
Letta-Teferra says that, while she wasn’t happy in Germany, circumstances kept her in the country longer than she wanted. She married a man she had known in Ethiopia who was also living in Germany. His work as a civil engineer kept them in Berlin. After getting her BA in psychology, Letta-Teferra completed an MA in social sciences. After graduation, she did an apprenticeship in a church and taught about other cultures at the German university she had graduated from.
Letta-Teferra still found life in Germany difficult. She says that when she would leave on holidays to the United States or Canada to visit relatives, she would realize how bad her life was in Germany. “I needed a month to get adjusted to Germany again,” she says. “I would get sick to be back there.”
In a briefing at the Federal Foreign Office in Bonn, a government official spoke of “everyone is living together” as one of the objectives of the German government. However, there was not talk about the rights of the non-Germans in elections. Letta-Teferra says the laws for auslanders need to be changed by the government then perhaps the attitudes of the Germans will change. There are still no anti-discrimination laws in Germany concerning race, says Marina Roncoroni at the commission for Foreigner’s Affairs in Berlin.
Letta-Teferra says the situation is also bad for those who are German but don’t look like other Germans. “Many of the black people in Germany are half-German so they are German, but not everyone thinks so.” The Commission does not keep statistics on how many black Germans live in the country, says Roncoroni.
Letta-Teferra says she feels sorry for black Germans. The children are growing up between two cultures. They are German but no one accepts that, she adds. “I was waiting for the train and I saw this boy, he was about 8-years-old and half-German, half African. Other kids were asking him where he was from,” she says. “When he told them he was German, the kids were denying it and saying ‘that can’t be, no.’ This kind of thing is very common.”
Sometimes rejection of black Germans comes from their own families. Twenty-three-year-old David Zacharias, who lives in Berlin, was abandoned by his mother because he’s black. “People asked her, why do you have this black child?” says Zacharias. “She told me that people would call her a n*gger-lover and should feel shame.” His mother lives in a spacious apartment in Berlin but her son lived in a boy’s orphanage.
Living in the former East Berlin, Zacharias has been beaten up three times by neo-Nazi skinheads. “They jumped on me as I was going home one night,” he says. “They kicked me in my stomach, in my back, everywhere. They put white spray paint in my eyes and told me to ‘go home to Africa.’” Zacharias says he was born in Germany and has lived his whole life there. He doesn’t know of any other home.
In Germany, police reporter 2,285 acts of rightist violence in 1992, mostly against foreigners, including seven murders. On May 29, 1993, a neo-Nazi firebomb killed five Turks – three young girls and two young women. There have been many other violent attacks on Turkish refugee hostels, homes and restaurants, according to Z Magazine.
“All you have to do to see what is wrong in Germany is to come out of the railroad station of any big city and look at the crowds on the streets,” Michael Petri, a 26-year-old militant, was quoted as saying in an article in the New York Times. “Sometimes you wonder if there are any Germans left at all. Everything’s in foreign hands.”
Germany has a population of 80 million with more than 5 million foreigners. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991, many people have entered Germany. The German government’s rules of citizenship create anti-foreigner attitudes in the neo-Nazi group, says Ian Kagedan, director of the B’Nai Brith Canada. In a briefing at the German Embassy, Jurgen Hellener, deputy ambassador, said Germany is not a “country of immigrants.” He also said German-born immigrants, such as Turkish people, are not considered Germans.
German citizenship can be acquired after living in the country for eight years and giving up any other citizenship. Auslanders who are not citizens pay taxes, says Ronconori at the Commission for Foreigner’s Affairs. “Someone born outside Germany who can trace their ancestors back to the Nazis can become a German citizen faster than a their-generation Turk.” Roncoroni is of Italian background.
Zacharias’s experiences in his home country make him feel like he’s been treated like an immigrant, he says. Letta-Teferra says that the laws of Germany encourage everyone, whether they are neo-Nazi or not, to have racist attitudes towards they don’t consider one of them. In World War II, definitions of who was and who wasn’t German resulted in the death of millions of Jewish people. Adolf Hitler’s rise to power came with the promises that he would keep Germany for Germans.
Germany has come to terms with its history, says Kagedan with B’Nai Brith. He says the racist attitudes of Hitler are reflected in the government today.
Zacharias wants to leave Germany. He sees a better life for himself in the United States or Canada. “I’m not treated any better than an auslander,” he says. “This is my home but I feel like an auslander.”
Letta-Teferra says she feels happier and more welcomed in Canada. She works as an employment counselour at the YM-YWCA. She says that in her first month in Canada her daughter Leli was hugging everyone, especially black people. “I think she’s starting to feel better about who she is,” says Letta-Teferra. “I don’t think she’s starting to feel as alone.”
The strict definitions of what German is affect the lives of immigrants and German-born people who aren’t entirely of the Aryan race. The racism that results occurs at the level of old women who make little girls cry and neo-Nazis who beat up young men. “The German government needs to change its laws about auslanders, about citizenship, and most importantly its definition of what a German is,” says Letta-Teferra. “To me they think Germans can only be blonde and blue-eyed. When the government and the country become more accepting, maybe neo-Nazi violence would decrease. Maybe I never would have left there.”