Far-right protestors hurled objects at her as she went through the streets of Greece, local councillors decided to prohibit her from visiting a hamlet of Orthodox monasteries, and her itinerary had to be rerouted due to demonstrations in Athens. Her arrival in France was met with opposition by the mayor of Calais.
The 8,000-kilometer trip through Europe of a 3.5-meter-tall puppet kid refugee showed the animosity faced by refugees who have been traveling the same path from Syria’s border to the United Kingdom for years. In other places, this enormous theatrical production has sparked the scenes of welcome that its creative leaders wanted to elicit when they set out on their journey in July.
Producer David Lan says the exercise has pushed thousands of individuals along the road to think on their views toward refugees, especially the hundreds of thousands of displaced children forced to leave their homes due to violence over the last decade.
“It would be untrue if I told you we had nothing but warmth and support for the entire 8,000-kilometer journey,” he adds. “However, Little Amal appears to bring the experience of people who have been brutally marginalized to the forefront.”
This is a matter of goodwill. It’s a chance for people to empathize with her and understand what it’s like to be her.”
The team stopped at refugee camps along the way and organized creative projects with actual child refugees. Refugee children created lanterns to greet her in Gaziantep, Turkey, near the Syrian border, where the trek started.
She drew a trail of abandoned shoes along the shore on the Turkish coast, symbolizing thousands of migrants who perished trying to cross the Mediterranean. The puppet visited the Vatican in Italy and shook hands with Pope Francis.
Thousands more youngsters in Brussels sent letters to her, prompting them to reflect on their own experiences as child refugees.
The puppet is highly expressive, pacing above people, watching everything while engaging with youngsters, expressing pleasure, rage, and sometimes sorrow — all of the feelings that a nine-year-old kid could experience. Lan, the previous creative director of the Young Vic, describes her as “very big.” “As a result, everyone can see her, and she’s brilliantly designed and graceful in her movements.”
It’s really powerful that she’s being honored.”
Amal (which means hope in Arabic) is an unaccompanied young refugee looking for her mother, based on a piece written by the refugee theatrical group Good Chance. At the height of the migrant flow in 2016, it was started at the Calais camps.
Puppeteers for the performance include former Calais migrants who manipulate her arms in welcome as she travels across European towns. The goal, according to artistic director Amir Nizar Zuabi, is to portray a “artistic moment that creates compassion” rather than make political points.
The producers have avoided depicting the worst aspects of the child migrant experience, such as journeys under the undercarriages of trucks, hazardous boat voyages, and border guard antagonism.
The puppet will cross the Channel lawfully, in a truck, and therefore will not draw the notice of British lawmakers who are discussing the nationality and borders bill this fall, which proposes to penalize individuals who enter the UK via unofficial means with up to four years in prison. In Folkestone, where hundreds of asylum seekers have landed in dangerously tiny boats this summer, she will be greeted with a choral performance.
Later in the tour, the show will stop in London to see St Paul’s Cathedral and the Royal Opera House before ending in Manchester.
According to Lan, the real trip bears little resemblance to the experience a refugee kid would have experienced. “We have to be crystal clear about that.” We’re on a path that migrants have traveled, but we’re staying in hotels and have passports.”
The contrast between the creative exercise and the everyday realities of life for Europe’s homeless immigrant population has been difficult to manage at times. The production crew stayed at a hotel in Brussels last week, when they discovered refugee families sleeping on their doorstep.
Later on, the path led them through a church where refugees were on hunger strike, asking that their immigration status be regularized. “Two ladies were carrying a piece of paper with the words ‘We are also human beings’ written in French on it. ‘Good God,’ I thought as I felt a pain.
We’re bringing a puppet into the room. This isn’t a play; what we’re doing is genuine.’ However, he claims that the appearance of a depiction of an unaccompanied child refugee moved the refugees on the inside. “‘Thank you, Amal,’ the women said.”
Greece’s hardships were interspersed with poignant moments. Residents of a neighboring town went out of their way to express support after the councillors decided against allowing the production to visit the Meteora monasteries.
“They thought we wanted to bring a Muslim element to Meteora and they weren’t welcoming,” explains Yolanda Markopoulou, The Walk’s producer in Greece. However, it was fascinating to watch how they felt intimidated, even by a puppet of a nine-year-old girl. We knew why she wasn’t welcome, because migrants aren’t always accepted.
What occurred in Greece was similar to what occurs to real refugees: there are always those who embrace them and others who do not.”
About 300 children had gathered in Larissa, Greece, with puppets they had created to welcome Little Amal to the city, when rightwing protestors came and began hurling stones at the show, hurting the children. “The kids had been preparing for months,” Markopoulou adds.
“Then people showed up and began throwing objects at the children – it was brutal.” For days, Amal was the talk of the town.
People worked very hard to overcome all of the negativity, and sometimes a harsh reaction garners more attention than a more calm one. It was a topic of conversation throughout the nation. It had a big effect.”
The production was logistically challenging, passing through eight countries at a time when Covid travel restrictions were rapidly changing and wildfires raged across southern Europe – a feat that even co-producer Tracey Seaward, who produced the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, found difficult.
The educational element of the trip, she thinks, has made it especially valuable. “We’ve been trying to get people to understand migration issues and why welcoming people is so crucial,” she adds. The Amal Fund, a parallel fundraising effort, is gathering money to support grassroots organizations that assist both young and elderly refugees who have lost out on educational opportunities.
“We have seen a lot of generosity,” creative director Zuabi adds of the benefits outweighing the bad. This initiative is a celebration of our common humanity. We’ve met individuals who are willing to open their hearts and cities and think about this problem in new ways. ‘Let’s construct walls, isolate ourselves, and leave Europe,’ is an easy way to tackle it.
However, we encouraged people to consider how they might embrace these individuals so that they are not marginalized. Our nine-year-old, three-and-a-half-metre colossus has given us a lot of happiness. People are coming to see Covid after nearly two years – but also to be together, which has been really emotional.”
Thanks to Amelia Gentleman at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.