German Chancellor Angela Merkel has defended her reaction to a crying teenage Palestinian refugee. In the calm after a social media storm, she said her response and gesture of stroking the girl's head was "really OK."
Chancellor Merkel told German public broadcaster ARD on Sunday that she had been honest and sympathetic with 14-year-old Reem Sahwil, whom she met Wednesday at a public discussion called "Living Well in Germany."
During the evening's discussion - filmed by public broadcaster NDR - Reem told Merkel in fluent German - one of the five languages she speaks - that her family, who arrived in Rostock from a Lebanese refugee camp four years ago, faced possible deportation. She said she wanted to study in Germany, but her prospects were uncertain.
"It's really very hard to watch how other people can enjoy life and you yourself can't ... I don't know what my future will bring," she said.
Gesture was 'fine'
After praising the teenager for her quickly acquired German skills, the chancellor explained that Germany would be unable to shoulder the burden of all the people fleeing war and poverty.
"You know too that in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, there are thousands and thousands. And, when we were to say now you can all come; and you can all come from Africa; we could not manage that."
Almost a minute passed before Merkel saw that Reem was crying and attempted to comfort the teen by stroking her head and shoulder. The chancellor's critics said her efforts to console the girl appeared awkward and cold.
"I think the gesture was really okay," Merkel, 61, told ARD on Sunday, adding that it would be wrong to tell people "just because you met the chancellor, we can resolve your case faster than many, many other people's."
"We are a state under the rule of law," Merkel said. "But nevertheless, you want to comfort a crying girl."
Praise for Merkel from Reem's family
Reem herself told the Sunday edition of "Bild" newspaper that she appreciated Merkel's matter-of-fact response.
"It would have bothered me more if she had not been honest," the 14-year-old said.
Speaking to DW's Arabic Service, Reem's father, Atif Sahwil also praised the chancellor's reaction.
"Ms. Merkel did something that no Arab state leader would ever do. Here in Germany it is normal that Ms. Merkel as chancellor is open toward the people and the public," he said, adding that Merkel was "in a position of responsibility and had to keep the country's laws."
"It was a dream that my daughter Reem was able to meet the German chancellor, the most influential woman in the world," he said. "I am also happy that Reem was allowed to speak about the situation of refugees."
Following the media frenzy last week, German officials later said it was unlikely Reem and her family would have to leave Germany given how well-integrated they appeared to be.
A measure recently passed by Germany's upper house of parliament will also it easier for certain refugees to stay on in Germany.
Germany's already strong influx of asylum seekers is expected to reach 450,000 this year.
Xenophobic sentiment has increased in some regions of Germany over the past months. This week alone, there were a least three suspected arson attacks on planned refugee homes across the country.
Earlier this month, German President Joachim Gauck denounced the attacks as "despicable" and "sickening."
ksb/sms (dpa, AFP, AP)