Vigil outside the hospital that treated Tugce Albayrak in Offenbach am Mein, Germany, Nov. 28, 2014.
Boris Roessler—EPA
By Catherine Mayer
December 1, 2014

Tugce Albayrak wanted to teach. The 22-year-old German-born daughter of Turkish immigrants had enrolled in a teacher-training course at Justus Liebig University in Giessen, majoring in German and Ethics. In the early hours of Nov. 15 she gave a masterclass in the second of these disciplines, intervening to protect two teenaged girls from harassment by a group of men at a McDonald’s restaurant in Offenbach, a town that has been swallowed by the larger of conurbation of Frankfurt. It will be down to the German judicial system to determine the exact sequence of the events that took place inside the restaurant and then in its car park but CCTV footage released on Dec. 1 shows Albayrak punched to the ground by an assailant as his companion tries to restrain him. Albayrak never regained consciousness and on Nov. 28 — her 23rd birthday — doctors switched off the machinery sustaining her life. In dying, she gave a final proof of her civic commitment; a registered organ donor, her tissues may save at least three people in urgent need of transplants.

As a result, her death may not be entirely in vain, but it was senseless. There have been candlelit vigils outside the hospital that treated her and on Nov. 30 crowds gathered in Berlin’s Turkish district, Kreuzberg, to pay their respects. On the same day soccer player Haris Seferovic scored a goal for his team Eintracht Frankfurt and then lifted his jersey to reveal a tribute to Albayrak written on his undershirt.

By Dec. 1 more than 141,000 people across Germany and further afield had signed a petition calling on the German President Joachim Gauck to award Albayrak a Federal Order of Merit. There is a precedent — five years ago the medal was given posthumously to Dominik Brunner, a German killed trying to stop a brawl — and Gauck has already indicated that he is giving serious consideration to Albayrak’s case. “Whilst others looked away,” Gauck wrote in a letter to Albayrak’s parents — and the CCTV footage suggests the phrase is literally true, “Tugce showed bravery and civil courage in an exemplary fashion.” She was, he said, a role model.

Photograph of Tugce Albayrak seen during a vigil outside the hospital that treated her in Offenbach am Mein, Nov. 28, 2014.
Boris Roessler—EPA

She also became the unwitting avatar of the dangers posed to women simply by being women, with up to 70% of women expected to experience violence during their lifetimes, according to figures put out by the United Nations to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on Nov. 25. The girls Albayrak sought to help were also victims or potential victims, but public opinion hardened against them when they proved slow to contact the police to give witness statements. The accounts of other witnesses suggested that they had been surrounded by men in or near the toilets at the McDonald’s and that Albayrak, hearing the commotion, intervened. Later, out in the car park, a man who may have been involved in the first incident paced up and down, and despite attempts to restrain him, eventually lunged at Albayrak. An 18-year-old, identified as Sanel M, is in custody. On Dec. 1, the department of public prosecution confirmed that the girls had also been located and interviewed.

Albayrak may now receive justice. It is what she stood for in the final hours of her conscious life.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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