Merkel’s Children: Living Legacies Called Angela, Angie and Sometimes Merkel

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 Feb. 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 is stepping down after her replacement is chosen following Germany’s Sept. 26 election. Her decision to welcome more than a million refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in 2015 and 2016 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 different corners of 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, each of them now calling Germany home.

“She will only eat German food!” said Ms. Maai of little Angela, now 5.

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 close-up 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. An animated girl with large hazel eyes and cascading curls, Angie loves to tell stories, in German, with her five siblings. Her sister Haddia, 13, wants to be a dentist. Fatima, 11, loves math.

“There is no difference between boys and girls in school here and that is good,” Widad said. “I hope Angie will grow up to be like Ms. Merkel: a strong woman with a big heart.”

The arrival of nearly one million refugees shook Germany, even as Ms. Merkel rallied the nation with a simple pledge: “We can manage this.” Like many others, Widad and her family were granted subsidiary protection status, in 2017, which allows them to stay and work in Germany. In three years, they will apply for German citizenship.

The latest government statistics show that migrants who arrived in 2015 and 2016 are steadily integrating into German society. One in two have jobs. More than 65,000 are enrolled either in university or apprenticeship programs. Three in four live in their own apartments or houses and say they feel “welcome” or “very welcome.”

During the pandemic, refugees sewed masks and volunteered to go 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.

Widad, who was an English teacher in Syria, recently got her driver’s license, is taking German lessons and hopes to eventually return to teaching. Her husband, who had a plumbing business in Syria, is studying for a German exam in October so that he can then start an apprenticeship and ultimately be certified as a plumber. For now, the family receives about 1,400 euros, about $1,650, a month in state benefits.

In Wülfrath, Tamer Al Abdi, the husband of Ms. Maai and father of Angela, has been laying paving stones and working for a local metal company since he passed his German exams in 2018. He recently created his own decorating business, while his wife wants to train as a hair dresser.

When Ms. Maai brought baby Angela to be registered at a nursery, she could barely speak German, said Veronika Engel, the head teacher.

“Angela? Like Angela Merkel?” Ms. Engel had asked.

“Yes,” Ms. Maai had beamed back.

Her family was the first of 30 refugee families whose children joined the nursery.

One boy would not allow the door to be closed, Ms. Engel recalled, while another could not bear loud noises. Angela’s older sister Aria, who was 5 when they fled Syria, became scared during a treasure hunt in the forest because it brought back memories of how her family hid from thugs and border guards during their journey through Central Europe.

“These are children traumatized from war,” Ms. Engel said. “The resilience of these families is admirable. We are a richer country for it.”

A vicar’s daughter, Ms. Merkel grew up behind the Iron Curtain in Communist East Germany, a background that has profoundly impacted her politics.

“She was clear: We won’t build new borders in Europe. She lived half her life behind one,” recalled Thomas de Maizière, who served as Ms. Merkel’s interior minister during the migrant crisis.

Not everyone has agreed. The migration crisis unleashed an angry backlash, especially in Ms. Merkel’s native former East Germany. This is where Berthe Mballa settled in 2015. She had been sent to the eastern city of Eberswalde by German migration officials, who used a formula to distribute asylum seekers across the country.

“The East is bad,” one immigration lawyer told her. “You got unlucky.”

In 2013, Ms. Mballa fled violence in Cameroon with a map of the world and the equivalent of 20 euros. She had to leave behind two young children, one of whom has since gone missing, and the trauma is so searing that she cannot bring herself to speak of it.

The first time she had ever heard Angela Merkel’s name was on the Moroccan-Spanish border.

“The Europeans had built big fences so the Africans wouldn’t come in,” she recalled. “I saw the people on the African side shouting her name, hundreds of them, ‘Merkel, Merkel, Merkel.’”

Since settling in 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.”

“One day my son will ask me why he is called Merkel,” she said. “When he is bigger, I will tell him my whole story, how hard it was, how I suffered, the pregnancy, my arrival here, the hope and the love that this woman gave me.”

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, if a small gesture, 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.”