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African-born German MPs bring new perspectives to politics

Bettina Marx | Daniel Pelz
June 27, 2022

For the first time in Germany's political history, the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, includes three lawmakers of African descent. So what do they want to achieve?

Green Party lawmaker Awet Tesfaiesus
Awet Tesfaiesus moved to Germany as a refugee and is now a lawmakerImage: Felix Zahn/photothek/picture alliance

Armand Zorn was surprisingly relaxed when he gave his debut speech at the Bundestag. The topic, tax policy, is his area of expertise. 

"I was a bit excited, I have to admit," said the 33-year-old management consultant who was elected to parliament last September. "But I like that. If you're nervous, you realize how important the issue is," he told DW in his Bundestag office the next day.

If he was nervous, no one noticed. He sounded confident, knowledgeable and factual, and even managed a few digs at the far-right populist AfD.

Armand Zorn has an unusual biography. Born in Cameroon, he was 12 when he moved to Halle, the largest city in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt, to live with his mother and her new partner. From there, he went  on to Paris, Constance, Bologna, Hong Kong, and Oxford.

Armand Zorn: Fighting for social justice

Zorn has lived in Frankfurt since 2015 and has been politically active since 2009. He joined the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in 2011. Chancellor Olaf Scholz is also a member of the SPD, the party that won the most seats in last year's election.

Zorn, who made it to the Bundestag as a direct candidate, said he's always wanted to fight for more social justice.

"I have had many experiences where I met young people who were very hardworking, competent, but never got the success they deserved," he said.

Zorn is a member of the Bundestag's powerful Finance Committee and the Committee for Digital Affairs. That's where he sees his strengths and competencies.

He also remains connected to Africa. "In finance, for example, many issues are related to global financial stability," Zorn said, pointing to the debt ratios of African countries. "It's about providing funds also to improve the prospects of certain African countries and allow development," he added.

Armand Zorn, SPD politician (L) with Kaweh Mansoori met German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Armand Zorn (R) seen here with Chancellor Scholz (L) wants to fight for social justiceImage: Hannelore Förster/imago images

Awet Tesfaiesus: Defending asylum seekers

Awet Tesfaiesus has also been a member of the Bundestag since the last election. She's still getting used to it. "It's a very different world. People are looking to talk and are open," Tesfaiesus told DW in a Skype interview.

"You can invite people for discussions. You're high up in the hierarchy," she said, stressing how different it is from the experience of a black woman "who gets stared at in the drugstore to see if she's stealing something."

Nevertheless, she said she still experiences everyday racism. "When I go shopping, I still get the usual looks from the security personnel."

Racism has long overshadowed her life. Tesfaiesus was born in 1974 in Eritrea's capital, Asmara. At that time, Eritrea had not seceded from Ethiopia. She and her family fled the Eritrean war of independence to Germany when Tesfaiesus was 10 years old. 

Their new home was a refugee shelter, where many families from Eritrea lived.

Awet Tesfaiesus (Greens) speaks to DW

"For my parents, it was hard," Tesfaiesus recalled. "We lived in a cramped space with many Eritrean children. There were six of us in one room with the whole family. But when you're a kid, you ignore that. You're happy that there are so many great people."

The experience inspired her to study law, and she later opened a law firm specializing in asylum law.

She wants to help others who also come to Germany as refugees, but is frustrated by how few refugees are granted residence status in Germany.

The EU's Dublin rules are clear: Refugees must apply for asylum in the first EU country they enter. In the case of her clients, that is usually Italy or Spain.

"In Italy, a lot of people are living on the streets, have been deemed eligible for asylum, but can't claim social benefits or take language courses," explained Tesfaiesus.

"It was frustrating to go up against that system, but I felt like I needed to make a political change."

Tesfaiesus has been a member of the Green Party since 2009 and was a city councilor in her home city of Kassel for 5 years.

She became a member of the Bundestag in October last year and is already her party's representative on the Committee on Cultural Affairs. And here, too, she has set an ambitious goal: Looted cultural treasures should be returned to the countries of origin.

"When I walk through German museums and see art and cultural heritage from my region, it hurts my heart. These things are on display, but they mean nothing to the people who see them," she said. "Whereas they mean a lot to the people in their countries of origin. They've been robbed of their identity."

Karamba Diaby shakes hand with former German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Karamba Diaby shakes hand with former German Chancellor Angela Merkel Image: Reuters/A. Hilse

Karamba Diaby: The veteran anti-racism politician

Alongside the two newcomers, Karamba Diaby is something of an old hand in the Bundestag.

 In 2013, when he first entered the Bundestag  even the New York Times reported on his achievement. Diaby was the first member of the German parliament with African roots.

"Many people thought that I was an expert on Africa or racism in everyday life and ignored that fact that my area was education and research," Diaby recalled.

Today, he is recognized in the Bundestag and by his voters. In 2021, they elected him directly for the first time.

Diaby came to former East Germany (GDR) in the 1980s from his native Senegal on a scholarship. He studied chemistry in Halle and eventually earned his doctorate in heavy metal contamination.

He has long called Halle home; something many right-wing extremists refuse to accept. Racist attackson social media are part of his everyday life.

For someone who has to endure so much hate and harrassment, Diaby is remarkably calm. He likes to differentiate, avoid sweeping judgments and inflammatory rhetoric.

"Death threats and so on hurt me. But I've also always been shown support and solidarity when anything unqualified, insulting or demeaning was posted," he told DW.

"I've been sent letters from people expressing solidarity and from school classes that collected signatures."

Karamba Diaby greets supporters on a bicycles
To his supporters, Karamba Diaby is like the 'next-door neighbor'Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Schmidt

After almost 9 years in the Bundestag, Diaby currently sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Development Committee. Today's German parliament is very different from in  2013 — it's much more diverse.

Nevertheless, Diaby continues to fight for greater diversity and inclusion.

"The more diverse the parliament is, the more differentiated the perspectives," he said.

This article was originally published in German.