Merkel’s Legacies: Grateful Angelas
WÜLFRATH, Germany — Hibaja Maai gave birth three days after arriving in Germany.
She had fled the bombs that destroyed her home in Syria and crossed the black waters of the Mediterranean on a rickety boat with her three young children. In Greece, a doctor urged her to stay put, but she pressed on, through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria. Only after she had crossed the border into Bavaria did she relax and almost immediately go into labor.
“It’s a girl,” the doctor said when he handed her the newborn bundle.
There was no question in Ms. Maai’s mind what her daughter’s name would be.
“We are calling her Angela,” she told her husband, who had fled six months earlier and was reunited with his family two days before little Angela’s birth on February 1, 2016.
“Angela Merkel saved our lives,” Ms. Maai said in a recent interview in her new hometown, Wülfrath, in northwestern Germany. “She gave us a roof over our heads, and she gave a future to our children. We love her like a mother.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is
stepping down once her replacement is determined following the German election that was held on Sunday, welcomed more than a million refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in 2015 and 2016.
It stands as perhaps the most consequential moment of her 16 years in power.
It changed Europe, changed Germany, and above all changed the lives of those seeking refuge, a debt acknowledged by families who named their newborn children after her in gratitude.
The chancellor has no children of her own. But in Germany, there are now 5- and 6-year-old girls (and some boys) who carry variations of her name — Angela, Angie, Merkel and even Angela Merkel. How many is impossible to say. The New York Times has identified nine, but social workers suggest there could be far more.
The fall of 2015 was an extraordinary moment of compassion and redemption for the country that committed the Holocaust. Many Germans call it their “fall fairy tale.”
But it also set off years of populist blowback, emboldening illiberal leaders like Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary 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 linger in squalor. And European leaders pay Turkey and Libya to stop those in need from attempting the journey at all. During the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, a chorus of Europeans was quick to assert that refugees would not be welcome on the continent.
“There are two stories here: One is a success story, and one is a story of terrible failure,” said Gerald Knaus, the founding chairman of the European Stability Initiative, who informally advised Ms. Merkel on migration for over a decade. “Merkel did the right thing in Germany. But she lost the issue in Europe.”
Having fled war, torture and chaos in Syria, Mhmad and Widad now live on Sunshine Street in the western German city of Gelsenkirchen. In their third-floor living room, a closeup 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 Widad, a 35-year-old mother of six, who asked that she and her family members be identified only by their first names to protect relatives in Syria. “Angela Merkel did something big, something beautiful, something Arabic leaders did not do for us.”
“We have nothing to pay her back,” she added. “So we named our daughter after her.” Angela, or Angie as her parents call her, is now 5.
The latest government statistics show that migrants who arrived in 2015 and 2016 are steadily integrating into German society. During the pandemic, refugees sewed masks and went shopping for elderly Germans isolated at home. During the recent floods in western Germany, refugees drove to the devastated areas to help clean up.
“They come to me and say they want to give something back,” said Marwan Mohamed, a social worker in Gelsenkirchen for the Catholic charity Caritas.
The migration crisis unleashed an angry backlash, especially in Ms. Merkel’s native former East Germany. This is where Berthe Mballa settled in 2015.
Since settling in the eastern city of Eberswalde, Ms. Mballa has been insulted on the street and spat at on a bus. Ms. Merkel is loathed by many voters in this region, yet Ms. Mballa did not hesitate to name her son, born after she arrived in Germany, “Christ Merkel” — “because Merkel is my savior.”
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 by declaring that “2015 mustn’t repeat itself.”
In Gelsenkirchen, Widad and her husband, Mhmad, have been treated well but realize that times have changed.
“Who will lead Germany?” Mhmad asked. “What will happen to us when she is gone?”
Ms. Mballa also worries. But she believes that naming her son after Ms. Merkel is one way to keep the chancellor’s legacy alive.
“Our children will tell their children the story of their names,” Ms. Mballa said. “And, who knows, maybe among the grandchildren there will even be one who will run this country with that memory in mind.”
Refugees honor the German chancellor for taking them in.