BAALBEK, Lebanon — When 14-year-old Reem Sahwil was told by Angela Merkel that Germany could not afford to care for refugees like her, it was likely not the first time she had heard it.
The young Palestinian girl’s encounter with the most powerful woman in the world made headlines around the globe, with much of the attention focused on the directness of Merkel’s answer.
But Reem was born a refugee. More than that, she was born a refugee in Lebanon: a country where discrimination against refugees is written into law, where a staggering number of Palestinians still live in camps decades after they arrived, and where the chances of resettlement or returning to her country of origin are both equally unlikely.
It’s no wonder that the prospect of leaving Germany, where she has stayed for the past four years, upset her.
Her extended family still lives here in the Wavel Camp, a mass of cinder block buildings built around an old French army barracks in east Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.
The camp sits back from the main highway on the edge of the town of Baalbek. It's a maze of narrow alleyways, small shops and homes, crammed into a small piece of land. Children play in the streets and hang around in the doorways under large posters of Palestinian leaders. Water and electricity are scarce, and many vital services are nonexistent.
It is home to some 8,000 residents, most of them descendants of refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Reem’s family came to Lebanon that year from Haifa, arriving at the camp in 1952. The family lived there through a 15-year civil war in which Palestinian fighters played a central role. Three Palestinian camps were destroyed during the 1975-1990 conflict, and in one of the worst atrocities of the civil war, as many as 3,500 were killed when right-wing Christian militiamen besieged the Sabra and Shatilla camps in Beirut in 1982.
The long journey to Germany
The story of how Reem got from a refugee camp in Lebanon to an audience with Angela Merkel is one of enormous physical and emotional hardship.
She grew up in a three-story building that is home to more than 20 relatives. (Some 45 members of her family live in the camp.) She was born two-months premature with cerebral palsy, a condition that has left her paralyzed on most of her left side.
As a result of her illness, she struggled to move around the cramped apartment she shared with seven others. Her grandmother, Em 'ata Sahwil, points to a handrail along the stairs leading up to Reem's bedroom. The metal has been worn to a shine by Reem’s hands.
“She didn’t go out much,” says one of her aunts. “She loved to play puzzles, draw, anything that made your head hurt.”
In 2006, when Reem was 6 years old, war broke out in Lebanon between Israel and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Her family was forced to flee to Syria for a few months, to another refugee camp. That same year, she broke her leg in a car accident, further complicating her health problems. The treatment Reem needed was not available in Lebanon, but the salary her father earned as a blacksmith was not enough to send her abroad.
A few years later, in 2009, the family managed to raise enough money, with help from friends and neighbors, to send Reem to Germany for an operation. She went with her mother, while her father stayed in Lebanon.
The operation did not go well. After she returned to Lebanon her condition deteriorated, and the family once again went looking for funds to pay for more treatment.
Reem went back to Germany the next year for another operation. This time the plan was for the whole family to apply for asylum in Europe after the surgery. “Two birds with one stone,” her uncle, Abu Alaa, says. Reem went with her mother and younger brother Ahmad, now 9. Her father planned to join them later.
After the operation, Reem and her mother went to Sweden, where they had family. Her father joined them by taking one of the many dangerous migrant routes between the Middle East and Europe. He went first to Syria (where Palestinians do not need visas) then on to Turkey, and from there by boat to Greece. He then took a flight to Sweden.
The family tried to apply for asylum in Sweden, but were told they had to do that in the European country where they first registered: Germany. They were sent to a refugee camp in Rostock, in the country’s north, where they lived until they found an apartment in town in 2013.
The family thought they were all set. They were together in Germany. They had a new baby on the way and at long last there was a glimmer of hope.
“They hired a lawyer. They wanted to go anywhere in Europe. Anywhere but Lebanon,” says the uncle, Abu Alaa.
But their asylum application was denied for a second time. It was around this time that Reem was asked by her school if she would like to attend an event with Merkel.
‘We thought she would be deported’
After hearing of the opportunity, Reem's grandmother in Lebanon urged her to ask the German chancellor a question.
“We encouraged her to talk,” she says. “But she was scared. She said ‘Merkel is the strongest woman in the world.’”
A few days passed before the family in Lebanon heard anything. Then a message came from Reem's father over WhatsApp. It showed the teenager crying on television, the German leader trying to console her.
When the family back in Lebanon found out what had transpired, they felt a mixture of pride and fear.
“We thought they would be deported,” Abu Alaa says. But speaking about Reem's moment of courage, he adds: “It’s a Palestinian thing. We don’t mind speaking up to powerful people. Of course we were proud.”
The video of what happened quickly spread around the world. Reem, sitting surrounded by other schoolchildren, speaks directly to Merkel, explaining in German her sadness at not being able to plan for her future because of the uncertainty of her family’s asylum application.
“I would like to go to university. 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,” Reem told the German chancellor.
Merkel replied: “I understand what you are saying, nonetheless politics is hard sometimes. There are thousands and thousands more in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. And if we say ‘you can all come here,’ ‘you can all come over from Africa,’ we can’t cope with that.”
Seemingly overwhelmed, Reem burst into tears. Merkel, appearing genuinely moved, tried to comfort her — but it was awkward. Some called the chancellor “heartless.” Others praised her for speaking directly.
But if Merkel's words were not heartless, they at least revealed a callousness in the complex web of domestic and international laws that guide refugees from one place to the next. Reem has lived in Germany for the past four years, learned the language, excelled at school (she was the only student in her class this year to receive the highest grade), and wanted to build a life in Germany. Here she was effectively being told by the leader of Europe’s largest economy that that wasn't enough to have earned a place in society.
Germany has been dealing with a rising number of asylum applications. According to the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), there were 202,834 applications for asylum made in Germany in 2014, almost 76,000 more than in 2013.
The trend is continuing this year. In the first six months of 2015, there were more than 179,000 applications for asylum, well over double the amount during the same period in 2014.
A life of poverty
Compared to the number of refugees in Lebanon, though, those numbers are miniscule. In addition to more than a million Syrians, there are 449,957 registered Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced to leave Palestine since 1948. More than half of them live in 12 refugee camps run by the United Nations body responsible for Palestinian refugees, UNWRA.
The sheer scale of the refugee crisis facing Lebanon would be damaging to any major economy, but for such a small country as this, beset as it has been by long periods of instability and war, it is too much to handle.
All of these camps suffer from similar problems, according to the UN, among them “poverty, overcrowding, unemployment, poor housing conditions and lack of infrastructure.” Due to a set of restrictive employment laws in Lebanon, Palestinian refugees are barred from 20 professions, including law, medicine, and engineering. They are also barred from owning property. Of all the countries where UNRWA works, according to the organization's own description, Lebanon has the highest number of Palestinians living in abject poverty.
Wavel Camp has its own unique problems. Its isolation in the sparse east of the country makes it difficult for residents to access health services. The Bekaa Valley also suffers from punishing winters. Last winter a man died due to the cold, according to UNRWA, leaving behind two daughters.
The general situation has been made worse by the influx of refugees fleeing the war in Syria, among them a sizeable number of Palestinians.
UNRWA is currently facing a shortfall of $100 million in its budget. If they do not find the money soon they will have to postpone the beginning of the school year. In Wavel Camp, the number of students per classroom has swelled from 30 to 50, according to residents.
As conditions here worsen, more Palestinians are taking great risks to travel illegally to Europe, according to UNRWA.
“In the last year there have been an increase in the number of Palestinians from Lebanon attempting to migrate illegally, often taking dangerous migrant boats,” says Zizette Darkazally, a spokesperson for UNRWA in Lebanon.
Despite the attention to her encounter with Merkel, Reem’s future is still uncertain. The mayor of Rostock, Roland Methling, said German authorities will look at the family's application again.
"We will re-examine this case very carefully — like all others. But an arbitrary decision is not possible under German law," he told local media.
But a new law that the Bundesrat (Germany’s Federal Council) passed on July 17 has raised hopes that Reem and her family could stay in Germany. The Federal Interior Ministry has said the rules, which make new allowances for granting residency, will come into effect this summer.
"The new law addresses the needs of asylum seekers who have been in Germany for a long time, who are well integrated into society and speak the language. It allows children and teenagers who have attended a school in Germany for at least four years to obtain a permanent residency," spokeswoman Pamela Müller-Niese told GlobalPost.
Reem’s relatives in Lebanon aren't getting their hopes up yet. “All of them promised to help. But it is all just words. Nothing has happened yet,” says Abu Alaa.
“The dream of lots of people here is to save enough money to leave. We hope they are successful.”
The family keeps in regular contact with Reem and her parents using phone messaging tools like WhatsApp and Viber. All of them miss having her around.
“When I talk to Reem I ask when she is getting residency so she can come and visit,” says her grandmother.
Additional reporting by Katharina Wecker in Berlin.