Whenever I drive up the A3 autobahn in Germany, there's an exit that I dread passing: Solingen. A city that once upon a time was primarily known for its artisan knives and scissors has come to symbolize one of the worst hate crimes in modern German history.
I was barely a teenager when five innocent members of an immigrant family from Turkey were murdered in an arson attack carried out by a group of neo-Nazis. Most of the perpetrators were barely older than me at the time. As were most of the victims.
The brutal attack made me question my own identity between multiple cultures. As a relative stranger here myself, I sought to understand how even to begin to react to such an egregious display of hatred.
When riots broke out and spread across the country in the aftermath of the attack, I remember my younger self wondering: How should I react to this? Must we counter hate with hate? And where does all this leave me?
Rejecting hatred squarely
The matriarch of the family killed in the Solingen attack, Mevlude Genc, lived to deliver the perfect response to my questions. She lost two daughters, two granddaughters and a niece in the inferno that engulfed her home in 1993.
Instead of hate, Genc — for the rest of her life — sought forgiveness as the answer to what had happened to her family. She became a vanguard of peace and reconciliation, whose magnanimity of spirit can perhaps only be compared to the likes of Nelson Mandela and Nadia Murad.
"From now on, we must live in brotherhood, harmony and friendship, forever. I have no hatred — for anyone," she said on one of the many occasions during which she campaigned for understanding across cultures and creeds.
With her passing, aged 79, at the end of October, two countries, Germany and Turkey, lost a role model — a woman who stood out with a simple answer to a complex web of hostility toward foreigners, which was only beginning to take hold in Germany at that point.
As a series of targeted killings of people with an immigrant background took place in the early to mid-2000s (known as the so-called National Socialist Underground or NSU murders), Genc continued to appeal to the public to respond with reason and measure and to trust the government to punish the perpetrators and bring justice to the victims and their families.
That government, however, was at best slow in recognizing all these heinous crimes as terrorist acts; in some ways, police and intelligence authorities were even complicit in a series of cover-up operations, which slowed the investigation, and may have failed to prevent some of the attacks.
Genc continued to believe in her rock-solid pacifist approach despite all this and expanded her quiet campaign for peace with each award she received, including the highest decoration in Germany, the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic.
Her patience and her trust in goodwill among people informed her actions far more than sensationalist headlines.
Hers was a life dedicated to compassion and decency — even in the face of the greatest adversity. One could perversely say that indeed it was a life well lived.
A brave new world
The world has changed since the attack in 1993 and perhaps not for the better. Instead of moving toward unity and understanding, polarization fuels a narrowmindedness capable of filling entire nations with hate.
What once literally was unspeakable nowadays comes out of the mouths of some of the most powerful leaders in the world. And wherever you turn, migration is still seen as a threat that apparently requires management and mitigation.
Xenophobic and racist attacks continue to cost lives the world over, as new names have joined the list of places that would make me shudder on autobahns, motorways and interstates across the world: Hanau, Christchurch, Chautauqua.
The list, unfortunately, goes on.
What would Mevlude Genc do?
There is a physical sense of revulsion that comes over me as I type those names, and I realize that I envy Mevlude Genc — who, despite having suffered so much, stayed true to herself; she never even moved away from her adopted hometown of Solingen despite the tragedy she suffered there.
"I have always lived here, it is my home. The good and the bad both are part of me," she said in an interview on her 70th birthday. "I will remain here until I die."
I wish I could maintain her composure. I wish I had her ability to face calamity with calm. I wish I could simply trust things eventually to balance themselves out. I wish the names of those places weren't charged with so much dread.
Edited by: Sean Sinico