Gratitude for the decision to welcome Chancellor Angela Merkel to some refugee families who traveled to Germany during the migrant crisis of 2015 and 2016 comes through a name.
WÜLFRATH, Germany – Hibaza Mai gave birth three days after arriving in Germany.
She had escaped from the bombs that destroyed her home in Syria and crossed the dark waters of the Mediterranean Sea on a rare boat with her three young children. In Greece, a doctor urged her to stay, but she pushed through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria. She rested only after crossing the border into Bavaria and went into labor almost immediately.
“It’s a girl,” said the doctor when he handed her the bundle she had born.
There was no question in Ms. Mai’s mind as to what her daughter’s name would be.
“We’re calling her Angela,” she told her husband, who fled six months ago and was reunited with his family on February 1, 2016, two days before little Angela was born.
“Angela Merkel saved our lives,” Ms Mai said in a recent interview in her new hometown, Wolfrath, in northwestern Germany. “He gave us a roof over our heads, and he gave our children a future. We love her like a mother.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel is stepping down after her replacement after Germany’s September 26 election. His decision to welcome more than a million refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in 2015 and 2016 is perhaps the most pivotal moment in his 16 years in power.
It changed Europe, changed Germany, and above all changed the lives of asylum seekers, a debt accepted by families who named their newborns after him in gratitude.
The chancellor has no children of his own. But in different corners of Germany, there are now 5- and 6-year-old girls (and some boys) with variations of the name – Angela, Angie, Merkel and even Angela Merkel. How much is impossible to say. Nine have been identified, but social workers suggest there may be more, each of them now calling Germany home.
“She’ll only eat German food!” Little Angela’s Ms. Mai said, now 5.
The fall of 2015 was an extraordinary moment of compassion and redemption for the country that perpetrated the Holocaust. Many Germans call it their “fall fairy tale”. But it dealt a populist blow, encouraging conservative leaders such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and catapulting a far-right party into Germany’s own parliament for the first time since World War II.
Today, European border guards are using force against migrants. Refugee camps live in filth. And European leaders pay Turkey and Libya to stop those in need from trying to travel. During the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, a group of Europeans insisted that refugees would not be welcome on the continent.
“There are two stories here: one is a success story, and one is a terrifying failure story,” said Gerald Knauss, founding president of the European Sustainability Initiative, who informally advised Ms Merkel on migration for more than a decade. . Merkel did the right thing in Germany. But she lost the issue in Europe. “
The Guardian Angela
After fleeing war, torture and chaos in Syria, Mehmed and Vidad now live on Sunshine Street in the West German city of Gelsenkirchen. In their third-floor living room, a close-up of Ms. Merkel’s smiling face is the screen saver on the large flat-screen television, a constant presence.
“She is our guardian angel,” said Vidad, a 35-year-old mother of six who recognized her and her family members by their first names to protect relatives in Syria. “Angela Merkel did something great, something beautiful, something that Arabic leaders didn’t do for us.”
“We have nothing to pay him back,” she said. “So we named our daughter after her.”
Angela, or Angie as her parents call her, is now 5. An animated girl with big brown eyes and cascading curls, Angie enjoys telling stories in German with her five siblings. Her 13-year-old sister Hadiya wants to become a dentist. 11 year old Fatima loves maths.
“There’s no difference between boys and girls in school here and that’s good,” Vidad said. “I hope Angie grows up to be like Ms. Merkel: a strong woman with a big heart.”
The arrival of nearly a million refugees shook Germany, even as Ms Merkel rallied the nation with a simple pledge: “We can manage this.” Like many others, Vidad and his family were granted auxiliary security status in 2017, which allows them to live and work in Germany. In three years, they would apply for German citizenship.
The latest government figures show that the migrants who arrived in 2015 and 2016 are increasingly integrated into German society. One out of two has a job. Over 65,000 are enrolled in either university or apprenticeship programs. Three out of four live in their own apartment or house and say they feel “welcome” or “very welcome.”
During the pandemic, refugees sewed masks and voluntarily went shopping for elderly Germans isolated at home. During the recent floods in West Germany, refugees moved into devastated areas to help clean up.
“They come up to me and say they want to give something back,” said Marwan Mohamed, a social worker in Gelsenkirchen for the Catholic charity Caritas.
Vidad, who was an English teacher in Syria, recently obtained her driver’s license, is taking German lessons and hopes to eventually return to teaching. Her husband, who had a plumbing business in Syria, is studying for a German exam in October so she can then start an apprenticeship and eventually get certified as a plumber. For now, the family receives state benefits of about 1,400 euros, about $1,650, a month.
In Woolfrath, Ms Mai’s husband and Angela’s father, Tamer El Abdi, has been laying paving stones and working for a local metals company since passing her German exams in 2018. He recently built his own decorating business, while his wife seeks to train as a hair dresser.
When Ms. Mae brought baby Angela to the nursery to register, she could barely speak German, said head teacher Veronica Engel.
“Angela? Like Angela Merkel?” Ms. Engel asked.
“Yes,” Ms. Mai smiled back.
His family was the first of 30 refugee families whose children had attended the nursery.
One boy wouldn’t let the door close, Ms Engel recalled, while the other couldn’t make a loud noise. Angela’s older sister Aria, who was 5 years old when they fled Syria, is horrified during a treasure hunt in the woods as it is a reminder of how her family was stunned by thugs and witches during their journey through Central Europe. He was hiding from the border guards.
“These are children suffering from war,” said Ms Engel. “The resilience of these families is commendable. We are a rich country for that.”
The daughter of a pastor, Ms. Merkel grew up behind the Iron Curtain in communist East Germany, a background that has deeply influenced her politics.
“She was clear: we will not build new borders in Europe. She lived half her life behind one,” recalled Thomas de Mazier, who served as Ms. Merkel’s interior minister during the migrant crisis.
‘You got lucky’
Not everyone agrees. The migration crisis sparked an angry reaction, particularly in Ms Merkel’s native former East Germany. This is where Berthe Maballa settled in 2015. He was deported to the eastern city of Eberswald by German immigration officials, who used a formula to distribute asylum seekers across the country.
“The former is bad,” an immigration lawyer told him. “You got unlucky.”
In 2013, Ms Maballa fled violence in Cameroon with a world map and the equivalent of 20 euros. She has to leave behind two young children, one of whom has gone missing, and the trauma is so deep that she can’t bring herself to talk about it.
She first heard Angela Merkel’s name on the Moroccan-Spanish border.
“Europeans built big fences so that Africans wouldn’t come in,” he recalled. “I saw people on the African side shouting her name, hundreds of them, ‘Merkel, Merkel, Merkel.’”
Since settling in Eberswalde, Ms Maballa has been insulted on the street and spat on a bus. Ms Merkel is hated by many voters in the region, yet Ms Maballa did not hesitate to name her son, born after immigrating to Germany, “Christ Merkel” – “because Merkel is my savior.”
“One day my son will ask me why she is called Merkel,” she said. “When he grows up, I’ll tell him my whole story about how hard it was, how I suffered, the pregnancy, my arrival here, the hope and love this woman gave me.”
Today, Germany and the rest of Europe have stopped welcoming refugees. Politicians in Ms Merkel’s own party have reacted to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, saying that “2015 should not repeat itself.” In Gelsenkirchen, Vidad and her husband, Mehmed, were treated well, but realized that times had changed.
“Who will lead Germany?” Mehmed asked. “What will happen to us when she leaves?”
Ms Maballa is also worried. But he believes naming his son after Ms Merkel, if a small gesture, is a way of keeping the chancellor’s legacy alive.
“Our children will tell their children the story of their name,” said Ms. Maballa. “And, who knows, maybe there will be someone among the grandchildren who will run this country with that memory in mind.”