The exchange took place during a televised discussion concerning German asylum policy in the northern city of Rostock.
“When you stand in front of me and you are a very nice person, but you know in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon there are thousands and thousands [of people] and if we say you can all come and you can all come from Africa… We can’t manage that,” Merkel stressed.
But what could otherwise have been taken as a simple description of Berlin’s current stance on immigration, was in fact a response to a young girl’s plea to study in Germany. The Palestinian girl was identified as Reem from Lebanon. Her family has been living in Germany for four years, but now could be facing deportation.
Following Merkel’s answer, the girl started sobbing, catching the German Chancellor off guard. Merkel then awkwardly tried to comfort Reem, approaching her and stroking her back, as the girl continued to cry.
Social media poked fun at Merkel’s shallow response with numerous photoshopped images, portraying the Chancellor as superficial and uncaring.
Twitter was bombarded with the hashtag #merkelstreichelt (Merkel strokes), while the video of the exchange went viral on social media, with dozens of reposts on YouTube in just a matter of hours.
It has been noted that Reem spoke good German, expressing her dreams of going to university “like everyone else.”
(caption says: “I didn’t know what to do, so I just stroke her”)
During Merkel’s attempts at damage control, she said to the girl: “Ah, you did a great job.” This forced the moderator to intervene and say that Reem was probably distressed because of her plight and not because she was worried about whether or not she had made a good speech.
In response, Merkel shrugged: “I know … Still, I want to give her a hug.”
A series of tweets have since pictured Merkel stroking various individuals who were photoshopped in place of the girl. One was the Game of Thrones character John Snow, with Merkel saying: “At least you are pretty.”
Another was Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, with the caption: “There, there. You don’t have to leave Europe.”