Tragic Misunderstanding A Model Immigrant's Battle to Succeed
Derege Wevelsiep, an immigrant from Ethiopia, has accused police of beating him, although they deny it. What pains the engineer most, though, is his belief that foreigners like him will never be truly accepted in Germany.
Derege Wevelsiep lay bleeding in his bedroom, a thin red rivulet running down his left cheek. Later, the surgical resident who examined him at Frankfurt's Sankt Katharinen Hospital would mention that wound -- lateral, one centimeter (0.4 inches) -- only fleetingly in her report. She also wrote, "Primary diagnosis: concussion with loss of consciousness; secondary diagnosis: contusion of the chest, right side, contusion of the right knee, contusion of the hip."
For 10 minutes, perhaps 20 -- Wevelsiep can't remember exactly -- he lay in the bedroom of his Frankfurt apartment. It was shortly before midnight on Oct. 17, 2012, and Wevelsiep was trying not to move, because the pain got worse when he did. Besides, the police had ordered him to stay in the bedroom and there was no way he was going to disobey.
Voices drifted in from the living room as four German police officers opened drawers and cabinet doors. Then, eventually, there was silence. The officers appeared to have gone, leaving the front door open.
Wevelsiep dragged himself onto the bed and gasped for breath. At that moment, the phone rang. It was Misale Solomon, his fiancée.
"What's going on?" she asked. Solomon was born in Ethiopia and lives in Frankfurt, the same as Wevelsiep.
'I'm Bleeding, Everything Hurts'
"I can't talk right now," Wevelsiep said in Amharic, one of the languages spoken in Ethiopia. "I'm bleeding, everything hurts. Call an ambulance."
This is how Wevelsiep describes those hours. This is his truth, but it doesn't match the truth of the four police officers.
Wevelsiep spent the night in the hospital's intensive care unit after doctors found blood in his urine. The next morning, he was transferred to a regular ward. On the third day, the hospital released him.
Soon afterward, the Frankfurt public prosecutor's office opened an investigation into the four police officers accused of "causing bodily harm while exercising a public office."
The officers deny they assaulted Wevelsiep. In the course of the investigation, young public prosecutor Jennifer Höra interviewed around 20 witnesses, requisitioned telephone records and ordered DNA testing. A lawyer representing the officers who were in the apartment that night then argued that Wevelsiep is black and that it is difficult to detect hematomas on dark skin. Will Wevelsiep be able to prove that he was beaten? The accused police officers claim he inflicted his head injury himself. Could they be telling the truth?
There has been a great deal of discussion about police brutality in Germany. Are there really more violent police officers now than there were a few years ago, or are there simply more people with cellphone cameras, able to publicize police brutality via YouTube? An officer with Germany's Federal Police is said to have beaten a Turkish man with a baton at Cologne-Bonn Airport. In Bremen, a video emerged of police officers beating a man to the ground. In Offenbach, officers conducted an "inspection" of 20 young mosque-goers that left three of the men hospitalized.
On the Bottom Rung
Wevelsiep's case is an ambivalent one, with two different versions of events from the very start. Is Wevelsiep someone who can be trusted? To understand why his is far more than just a complicated investigative case, it's necessary to delve into Wevelsiep's life. The full tragedy of his situation only becomes clear when one learns that nothing has preoccupied Wevelsiep more than the question of how to become a good German citizen.
The man doubled up that night on the bedroom floor of his apartment in Frankfurt's Eckenheim district is now 42 years old. Born in Addis Ababa, he has small, humorous eyes and is meticulous in character. He's an electrical engineer, a man who tends to speak rapidly when his pulse is elevated.
Wevelsiep has always felt his life in Germany was a competition, an exhausting race. "To put it simply, everyone's trying to transform themselves from a B person to an A person," he explains. The course he had to run, Wevelsiep says, began with an application for asylum and ended with naturalization, becoming a German. As a "B person" in Germany, as an asylum seeker, as a foreigner, as a black person -- especially as a black person -- you are on the very bottom rung, Wevelsiep says, and it's not a good feeling. But you go through it because you're trying to achieve something. The goal, he says, is the transformation from African to German.
Perhaps the misunderstanding lies in believing that such a transformation is possible.
"You can't imagine what Derege went through in order to stay here, to not be deported," says Professor Klaus Wevelsiep, Derege Wevelsiep's adoptive father. He pauses, then adds, "What we all went through."
No Inconsistencies in His Answers
Professor Wevelsiep is sitting beside his wife Rosemarie in their home at the end of a row of houses near the city of Tübingen, with rooms furnished primarily in pine. They have their second home here because they like the region, "and the dog does, too." Both the Black Forest and the Swabian Jura region are close by.
The professor has thin, gray hair and the rich voice of a man familiar with public speaking. At 71 he continues to hold electrical engineering seminars at Mittelhessen University of Applied Sciences in Friedberg. He makes statements such as, "Following the occurrence in question, I subjected my son to a systematic questioning, using much the same method as one would apply to a research subject. There were no inconsistencies in his answers whatsoever, as was confirmed by cross-examination on my part." That's his way of saying he believes his son.
His wife, a retired librarian, is a reserved woman in her late sixties. Diabetic since she was a child, Rosemarie Wevelsiep decided not to have children of her own, for fear she would pass the illness on to them. It wasn't an easy decision.
"At first I thought, my God, this Derege is depressed," Rosemarie Wevelsiep says. She met Derege and his younger sister, Lucy, in 1996 while teaching German to asylum seekers at a preparatory school for foreign students seeking to enter German universities.
A Bright Future Ahead
Derege's mother was an Ethiopian Jew, his father an army colonel. The family ranked among the elite in Ethiopia, which at the time had a socialist government. Ethiopian socialism, however, must be imagined as an illness, a type of insanity, a system under which as many as a million people starved to death during a drought in the mid-1980s.
For the privileged Derege, this was a time when his home life included many employees who cost his family nothing. His father set clear rules. Derege and his brothers were expected to attend university, with a bright future ahead of them.
These things were not a given in Ethiopia, and Germany was discussed a great deal within the family. Derege's father had studied logistics in Germany and he still remembers the way his father described the country. In young Derege's mind, Germany was the closest thing in existence to a perfect country.
When his parents were imprisoned in August 1990, Derege fled to Germany. It was his first and only choice, although he could have gone anywhere. His family had friends in the Foreign Ministry. When he arrived in Germany on October 1, 1990, the Berlin Wall had fallen and East and West Germany were mere days away from official reunification. Germany was a place highly preoccupied with itself.
The Fight to Stay
"They weren't the only ones who were alone, then -- we were, too," Rosemarie Wevelsiep says, sitting on her patio, in describing that 1996 meeting. "First we spent Christmas together, then the weekends, too." She and Derege's sister Lucy liked each other from the moment they met. Rosemarie's husband, meanwhile, quickly observed that Derege was a clever young man and interested in engineering.
These two dissimilar pairs of people, the childless academic couple and the young asylum-seeking siblings, became friends. And soon the Wevelsieps decided to do something that is not part of the usual asylum process -- they adopted Lucy and Derege. Shortly afterward, Professor Wevelsiep brought his son Derege's adoption certificate to his university and enrolled him in the electrical engineering department. He promised the university administration that the necessary permits to reside and study in Germany would soon be complete as well. A mere formality.
And a lie. The German immigration authorities declared the adoption insufficient. Officially, Derege Wevelsiep was not allowed to study in the country. The fact that the parents were German did not mean their adult son necessarily was as well, the authorities declared. It didn't even mean he would be allowed to stay in Germany. Nonetheless, Derege began his course of study at the university. He found the arduous fight to remain in the country unbelievable. He now had German parents, and it still wasn't enough.
"I love this country, truly," he says. "But I've never understood it." He's sitting in a Frankfurt subway car bound for the Bornheim Mitte station, traveling to precisely the spot where he first met the police officers who later entered his apartment that night in 2012. He's wearing a light-colored, freshly ironed polo shirt and neat slacks. He's rarely late, Wevelsiep says. In fact, strictly speaking, he is never late.
- Part 1: A Model Immigrant's Battle to Succeed
- Part 2: 'I'm Not a Criminal Kind of Person'