Angela Merkel is mean: that seemed to be the story last week. First she was accused of humiliating Alexis Tsipras, the Greek Prime Minister, in negotiations for his country’s third financial bailout in five years. Then came word that Merkel, upon returning to Germany from the Greek summit, had made a fourteen-year-old refugee girl cry.
The crying incident took place at a forum called “Living Well in Germany,” part of a series, sponsored by the government, that Merkel has taken part in before. This one was with twenty-nine children at the Paul Friedrich Scheel School Center, in Rostock. In the most widely circulated video clip, a girl named Reem Sahwil tells the Chancellor that she and her family are Palestinians who have been in Germany for four years, waiting for their asylum application to be approved, and that she lives in fear that they’ll be sent back to a refugee camp in Lebanon. “I don’t know what my future looks like, as long as I don’t know if I can stay,” Sahwil says. Smiling, thoughtful, and speaking, as the German press judged it, “perfekt Deutsch,” Sahwil goes on:
I also have goals, like other people. I’d like to go to college. That is really a wish, a goal I’d like to achieve. It’s not so nice, watching how other people can make the most of their lives when one isn’t able to make the most of one’s own, along with them.
“I understand,” Merkel says. “It’s sometimes hard, politics. You stand here in front of me. You are an incredibly appealing person.” But that wasn’t what mattered. “You know that there are thousands and thousands of more refugees in the camps in Lebanon. We can’t just say, ‘You can all come. And all of you in Africa can come.’ We can’t manage that.” Soon after Merkel said this, Sahwil began to cry.
Politics is hard, in this case for Merkel, who was roundly criticized. Here are five political lessons from the encounter, which she, and certain American candidates, might find useful:
1. Most American politicians have a well-developed hug-or-flight reflex. Not Merkel.
“Oh, God,” Merkel said, when she saw that Sahwil had broken down. “But you were really first-rate!”
“I don’t think this is about being ‘first-rate,’ Chancellor,” the moderator said. “It’s about her being in a very stressful situation.” Merkel turned and snapped at him:
I know that it’s a stressful situation! But I’d still like to give her a little pat.
“Give her a little pat”—that translation is imperfekt, largely because the phrase Merkel used, einmal streicheln, is incredibly awkward in German, too. Streicheln is not quite hugging; it’s more like stroking or petting, and, indeed, Merkel sort of rubbed Sahwil’s arm. This prompted criticisms that she was handling the girl as if she were a kitten, and gave rise to the hashtag #MerkelStreichelt.
In this country, a politician in Merkel’s situation would generally adopt one of two tactics: end the conversation with a content-free emotional gesture (Harry Reid, hugging a Dreamer in 2012) or get out of there fast (Rand Paul, fleeing when he realized that both an undocumented immigrant and a camera crew were in his vicinity). Merkel stuck around, leading to the next lesson:
2. Interesting things can be said when politicians have extended, unscripted conversations with ordinary people. This is why they often avoid it.
Americans might imagine that Merkel was blindsided by Sahwil’s expression of her wish to stay in the country. But Sahwil had started with a different, relatively anodyne question: she felt very well integrated in her school community—“It’s been pretty easy, because the teachers and other students have been so nice”—and wondered why not everyone had that experience. It was Merkel who pushed her to talk about her family’s situation. (“Did you come directly from Lebanon, or Syria?”; “What stage is the application at?”) Their exchange lasted more than eleven minutes, in part, it seemed, because Merkel, like every German who has commented on the story, was unabashedly fascinated by Sahwil’s mastery of the language, by how German she sounded. (Several newspapers ran variations of the headline “Reem Got the Best Grade in German Class.”) “Crazy, no?” Merkel said to the room in general, shaking her head. This is a reminder that …
3. Immigration is an issue that forces a country to ask what it likes about itself.
Very few countries are pure on immigration. That includes America, where we’ve failed the Dreamers, young people who have taken to this country much as Sahwil has Germany. Nor is Germany the only European nation with an undeveloped response to the migrant crisis and to the rise of anti-immigrant parties. Some of the questions that come up in the German debate are the same being asked about the Greek crisis. What does it mean for Europe to be a community, and for Germany to be a leader?
Merkel, in the extended video of the exchange, spoke with some passion about having to prioritize refugees from Syria’s civil war over economic immigrants. And so other people might “have to go back” to where they came from. Merkel’s mistake was trying to use Sahwil to argue that one couldn’t think about immigration in terms of individual stories. (While some politicians get lost in anecdote, it’s also possible to get lost in abstraction.) But the political debate that the exchange has provoked in Germany is about more than Merkel’s cramped emotions: it’s about whether immigration is really an either-or situation—Who do you want to save, this teen-age girl or a war refugee?—or if it’s time for the country to come up with a more comprehensive immigration law. The country is changing; one sign is that …
4. The kids are pretty great.
When Sahwil started to cry, the girl sitting to her left gave her what would be called a hug in any language, and kept her arm around her protectively during the patting interlude. The boy to Sahwil’s right, who was tall and blond, whipped out some tissues and handed her one. Merkel seemed to relax as the moderator called on that boy for the next question. He looked so polite.
“I’m gay,” he said. “And I would like to know why homosexual and heterosexual relationships should be treated differently, in terms of marriage and adoption.”
Merkel sighed. She repeated the position of her party, the Christian Democratic Union: marriage is a union between a man and a woman. She also said that she understood that the next generation might have a different view. There was a call for a show of hands; if anyone in the room was on Merkel’s side, the camera didn’t catch it.
These young people, it became clear, have thought intensely about justice, fairness, and plain luck.
5. “Nobody is complete.”
This is something Merkel said during the event, referring to her own inabilities in certain areas. But, she might have added, when you’re a politician—or if you just get out of the house—you can meet remarkable people.
The morning after the forum, a German television crew filmed Sahwil arriving at the school. She walked with a limp and was leaning, for support, on the arm of the blond boy. They were both smiling. The focus of the Paul Friedrich Scheel School is on students with physical disabilities, and that includes Sahwil. She was born two months prematurely, in a refugee camp in Baalbek, Lebanon, and didn’t get enough oxygen during the delivery. The medical problems she was left with were compounded by injuries she sustained in a car accident when she was about five years old. The Red Cross helped care for her. Her family, which her father supported by working as a welder, first arrived in Germany on a medical visa; in the four years that she has been in the country, she has undergone six operations on her legs and her eyes. She cannot walk without support or move her left arm freely. This hasn’t stopped her in school. When she arrived in Rostock, Sahwil told Bild, “I didn’t speak a word of German, I didn’t know anyone, I was scared. Today I don’t want to leave.” Various German politicians, including the mayor of Rostock and the leader of the Social Democratic Party, have said that they don’t want her to leave, either. (And, indeed, a law that was passed in Germany this summer, a sort of proto-Dream Act, may make that possible.)
Sahwil also defended Merkel, whose attempts to comfort her were, she thought, genuine, even though the Chancellor’s answers disappointed her, she told Bild. Her own life has, perhaps, given her perspective on the difference between practical help and pity, and she seems to know which she prefers. “It would have made me feel even more sick if she hadn’t been honest,” she said. “I like honest people like Mrs. Merkel.”