German Chancellor Angela Merkel was mocked online Thursday over an awkward encounter with a Palestinian girl who sobbed during a televised discussion of the country's policy on asylum.
The hashtag #merkelstreichelt (merkelstrokes) and video clip of Merkel's exchange with the girl went viral. The girl, identified as Reem from Lebanon, has lived in Germany for four years but her family may face deportation.
During a discussion forum in the northern city of Rostock, Reem told Merkel in good German that she wanted to study in Germany. It was unpleasant that she could not share the enjoyment of life experienced by her peers because of uncertainty over whether she will be able to stay, she said.
"I understand," said Merkel. "However ... sometimes politics is hard. 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 and you can all come. We can't manage that."
At that point, Reem began to cry.
Looking surprised, Merkel walked up to her and said: "Ah, you did a great job."
The moderator of the discussion intervened to say the young woman was crying more because of her difficult situation than over whether she had done a good job in presenting her views, Merkel retorted: "I know ... Still, I want to stroke her." She then stroked Reem on the back.
Tweets mocked Merkel, accusing her of looking clumsy and lacking empathy.
"With the chancellor in the zoo," tweeted Torsten Gaitzsch.
"#merkelstrokes with the cold hand of an ice queen" wrote Martina Wilczyniski.
Felix Seibert-Daiker, who moderated the forum, told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung that Merkel had reacted in a humane manner.
"Of course, we all would have liked Merkel to take Reem in her arms and say 'you can stay' but that is not the situation." He said she respected her attempt to explain the political situation to a child. "Many colleagues would have talked around it."
Immigration has shot up the political agenda due to mounting fears among Germans about how to cope with a flood of asylum seekers, especially from the Middle East and Africa and many of Merkel's conservatives want her to take a harder line.