One year ago, 15-year-old Reem Sahwil went to a televised discussion led by Chancellor Merkel and left with something she never expected: international attention and mockery of her host country’s leader.
The Palestinian refugee had been living with her family in the northern city of Rostock for several years after leaving a Lebanese refugee camp and faced possible deportation.
The debate was held a month before Merkel famously uttered “Wir schaffen das” (we can do this) and temporarily suspended certain restrictions for Syrian refugees, leading to a huge rise in people applying for asylum.
Sahwil told the Chancellor in fluent German about her concerns for her family’s future, to which Merkel responded by saying “Of course you are an extremely nice person” and then defended the government’s asylum policies, explaining that Germany “couldn't manage” to take in all those fleeing war and poverty.
Soon Sahwil began to cry and the Chancellor stroked her head and tried to comfort her, leading to ridicule of online as critics said Merkel appeared cold-hearted and awkward.
From the beginning, Sahwil has stood up for Merkel, and again repeated her gratitude in an interview with Bild, published online on Thursday.
“She got a lot of criticism for how she petted me. But it was certainly an emotional and unique situation – also for her. I would simply say thank you to her, from me and my family, but also from all refugees who she has helped. This has not been so easy for her and Germany and I thank Ms. Merkel very much for it.”
In September, Sahwil and her family learned that they would receive residency permits, and in December it was announced that their permits would be valid until October 2017.
Merkel’s head spokesman Steffen Seibert also told DPA news agency this week that the teen had met with the Chancellor once again after the famous encounter, and that she had been invited to a talk at the Chancellery after the Easter holidays this year.
But besides the news for her family and the lingering buzz about the Chancellor’s encounter with the teen, Sahwil said this past year has been big for her in other ways: she was using a wheelchair when she first met Merkel, and now is walking on her own.
“I have become more self-confident and brave because in the past year so much has happened. I was in the newspapers and even on TV. That was all very exciting for me,” she told Bild.
“Over the months since, I have also grown healthier. A little over a year ago, I used a wheelchair and couldn’t walk on my own. But in the past couple of months, I have had the courage to try to stand on my own feet and walk.
First I tried with my father giving me his hand, then at some point alone. I have slowly made and practised taking steps forward. Today I can walk all alone,” she continued, adding that now she just uses the wheelchair when she grows tired from walking.
“I am crazy happy about this and I don’t know if I would have had this bravery if it weren’t for the meeting with Merkel.”
Rostock’s mayor told DPA that he was very optimistic that she and her family would ultimately be able to permanently stay in Germany.
“I would say that we have now found a second home” in Germany, Sahwil said.
“In Lebanon, I had my childhood, my family, and my roots. Rostock is now our home and we feel very happy here.”