Fear of Honor Killings Immigrants Flee Families to Find Themselves
Part 2: 'I'll Run Away with You'
The day on which Mariam, the young Lebanese woman, put her life in danger was the day she fell in love with Thomas, her boss at the fast-food restaurant where she worked. He had already noticed how her brothers would bring her to work every day and pick her up at the end of her shift. He sensed that she was suffering at home. At some point he said to her: "When the moment arrives and you want to go, I'll run away with you."
The moment arrived in November 2008, after they had been secretly in love for a year. Mariam's brother had married and, in return, the father of the bride wanted Mariam to marry his son. He had visited the family to select a bride for his son and, after examining her from head to toe, including her behavior and the way she moved, he chose Mariam. But she refused the offer, incurring the wrath of her family.
When Mariam told him what had happened, says Thomas, he thought about it for three minutes. First he found a spot for her in a women's shelter in another city, and then he threw some clothes into a plastic bag and went into hiding at a relative's house. That same afternoon, Mariam's and Thomas's phones rang at almost the same time.
"They told me I was a slut and that they would kill me," Mariam says quietly as she describes the calls.
The couple was reunited after four weeks. Mariam couldn't sleep and was constantly panic-stricken. To be closer to her, Thomas moved into a homeless shelter, because he lacked the funds for anything else. His best friend had been beaten up because he couldn't tell his attackers where Thomas and Mariam were.
The aid organization Terre des Femmes initially provided the couple a room in a safe house. Then a social worker offered them the use of his vacation house in the forest. They lived there for more than a year, their thoughts permeated by Mariam's family. They were terrified that any contact with other people could lead to their discovery -- and of what would happen to them next.
That was what happened to Arzu Özmen, an 18-year-old woman from Detmold in northwestern Germany, a few months ago.
The young woman, a member of the Yazidi religious community, was found on the edge of a golf course in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein on Jan. 13. According to the forensic report, she was killed with two shots to the head. Eleven weeks earlier, Özmen's siblings had abducted her from the apartment of her 23-year-old German boyfriend, Alexander.
Özmen's story of forbidden love and the unsuccessful attempt to get away is as tragic as it is typical.
Özmen's attorney still remembers their first encounter very clearly. It was on Sept. 12, 2011. "She came into my office and said: 'Hello, I would like to change my name.'" She was calm but emphatic, says the lawyer, a specialist in family law who chooses to remain anonymous. "She warned me right away that anyone who advocated on her behalf could expect to receive a visit from her family." It was clear to the attorney that she would have to take a number of detours to get Özmen a new identity -- and erase all traces that could lead to the young woman.
The biggest problem was Özmen's older sister S., who worked for the Detmold city administration. Her job gave her access to internal information. She could have used the address of the law firm to track down Özmen's whereabouts. To avoid that, the attorney asked a colleague in Oberhausen, around 100 miles (160 kilometers) away, to request Özmen's birth certificate in Detmold.
The Oberhausen attorney had hardly submitted the request before S., the sister, contacted his office and suggested that he arrange a meeting with Arzu.
Özmen's attorney found a civil registry office in the Westphalia region that recognized the gravity of the situation. Özmen went to the office and presented the documents that had been sent from Detmold to the law firm in Oberhausen. She also filed a criminal complaint against her family and submitted a statement from her attorney, in which she described how dangerous Özmen's situation was.
"The girl was a German citizen. She had been naturalized at the age of three," explains the registrar. "This meant that she could change her name retroactively to conform with German law." Article 47 of the Introductory Act to the German Civil Code makes this possible.
In her new life, Arzu Özmen wanted to be called Emily, Emily Ostermann. She changed her appearance, cutting her hair and dying it blonde.
To ensure that the Detmold authorities would not be notified, the registrar, at Özmen's request, added a restriction note to her file. Under German law, this is permissible if the civil registry office is aware of circumstances indicating that the individual in question could be in mortal danger if the information in the file is disclosed. Özmen picked up her new documents a few days before she was abducted.
Özmen was doomed because her desire to see her boyfriend ultimately outweighed her fear. To be with him, she checked out of the women's shelter on the night of Oct. 31.
Three of her siblings have now been indicted for murder and are awaiting trial. So far, they have not revealed which one of them killed Arzu.
'Everything Went Down the Tubes'
Sobair O. from Hamburg is serving a life sentence for a so-called honor killing.
He was eight when he came to Germany with his family. His parents' marriage had been part of a bartering arrangement, says O., who is now 27. When his mother's brother married a woman, her brother was given O.'s mother in return.
He dropped out of a training program in retail sales after serving two weeks in a youth detention facility, because he didn't want to ask his employer to take him back. "I didn't want to go there and bow my head," says O. "That's not what we do." It's an attitude that explains much of what happened after that.
On May 15, 2008, O. killed his 16-year-old sister Morsal. He stabbed her more than 20 times with a jackknife, because she wanted to live like a German girl. Morsal bled to death at the scene.
The judge presiding over the case at a Hamburg court called it a "killing out of pure intolerance," an act motivated by wounded honor. When he delivered the verdict, O.'s family ran riot in the courtroom.
When O., now in prison, talks about Morsal today, his eyes fill with tears. But it's difficult to tell whether he is weeping for his dead sister or himself.
What happened? He shrugs his shoulders. "When I moved away from home, everything went down the tubes. Suddenly she was hanging out with strange people."
According to O., the parents took Morsal to an aunt in Afghanistan in March 2007. "They wanted her to learn how a woman should behave," he says. According to O., Morsal told him that the father had tied a headscarf around her head while they were still on the plane. His mother had allegedly said that the girl would have to marry and have five children before she could come home.
Morsal was kept in Afghanistan for an entire year. "She kept calling me and begging me to come and get her. She was sad that no one could speak German with her," says O. When he learned that Morsal was to be married off in Afghanistan, he says, he fought for her and convinced his parents to bring her back to Germany. His mother apparently agreed, but told him that it would be his responsibility to ensure "that she doesn't cause us any more trouble."
But once she was back in Germany, Morsal returned to living her life the way she preferred. Sometimes she didn't come home for days, and she stole from him and their parents, O. claims. "My mother used to call me on my mobile phone two or three times a day and scream: Where is Morsal? Fix this! Everyone is talking about us. You're getting to be just like the Germans."
O. lowers his voice, almost to a whisper. "We knew that she had a boyfriend. But in our society, a girl just can't do that."
'I Had No Right to Kill Her'
And then there were the gossiping acquaintances, who claimed that Morsal was turning tricks.
Those claims proved to be disastrous -- for Morsal, for O. and for the entire family. O. asked a cousin to lure Morsal into meeting him.
They had sat on the curb, as O. recalls, drinking Cokes and smoking cigarettes.
Then, according to O., the cousin asked her: "Is it true that you're turning tricks?"
"That's none of your goddamn business," Morsal supposedly responded.
All he remembers, says O., is that was when he reached into his pocket. He turned himself in to the police the next day.
O. looks at his hands. "Yes, I wanted to protect the family honor at the time," he says. "Today I know that even if she had been turning tricks, I had no right to kill her."
In the Morsal case, the court stressed that the parents, who were not charged with a crime, carried "a high moral share of the blame." Morsal's father was convicted of mistreatment of a ward and given a suspended sentence.
- Part 1: Immigrants Flee Families to Find Themselves
- Part 2: 'I'll Run Away with You'
- Part 3: The High Cost of a New Identity