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Little Amal Comes to NYC

Issue 274

An 11-foot-tall puppet of a 10-year-old Syrian refugee girl reminds us of the humanity of people who flee their homelands seeking safety and a better life.

Jessica Max Stein Sep 22

What if you could make the refugee crisis literally too big to ignore? Amir Nizar Zuabi, artistic director of the Amal Walks project, is hoping to do just that — through an 11-foot-tall puppet of a 10-year-old Syrian refugee girl named Little Amal. A common Arabic name, Amal means “hope”. 

Since Little Amal started “walking” in July 2021, she has traveled over 5,500 miles across 12 countries, from Syria to England, passing through Turkey, Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, France, Poland and the Ukraine, holding nearly 200 events in 85 different locations. On Sept. 14, she came to New York City, greeted at John F. Kennedy Airport by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and children’s chorus. 

Little Amal will spend 17 days in New York, working with over 100 partners across the city to create 55 events in all five boroughs. And she doesn’t merely go to tourist destinations like Times Square — Little Amal is seeing the “real” New York, from Jackson Heights to Bed-Stuy, Mott Haven to Snug Harbor. 

Little Amal will spend 17 days in New York, working with over 100 partners across the city to create 55 events in all five boroughs.

The Indypendent caught up with Little Amal in Dumbo, Brooklyn. The crowd waited for her at the Pearl Street Plaza, then followed her as if she were the Pied Piper over to Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn Bridge Park, a striking visual with the stunning 11-foot puppet against the glittering backdrop of the East River and the Manhattan Bridge. Amal watched other puppets riding on the carousel and danced to live music before disappearing into St. Ann’s Theater, which is co-producing the New York events with The Walk Productions.

Through this sort of street theater, Little Amal confronts us with the harsh realities of a worldwide refugee crisis. The crowd walked past a restaurant, some who stared, some who got out their phones, and others who just kept on eating and talking. A woman in an apartment window tried to describe Little Amal to her partner, making huge gestures, as he peered out the window, puzzled. Another boon of the outdoor events is that they are COVID-safe, a deliberate choice by the producers.

Little Amal with a crowd at Brooklyn Bridge Park on Sept. 19. Photo: Twitter/@walkwithamal.

Little Amal was designed and built by Handspring Puppet Company, who created the magnificent life-sized puppets for Broadway’s War Horse. She is made largely of cane and carbon fiber, materials which are both lightweight and resilient. “This is a little migrant child who has been forced to leave her home and is seeking her mother,” says Handspring executive director Basil Jones, who with Handspring artistic director Adrian Kohler came out of retirement to make Little Amal.

Three performers bring Little Amal to life, working together as one entity. Two are outside the puppet, operating the arms; the third performer, walking inside the puppet on stilts, also manipulates the complex web of strings and pulleys that control Amal’s extraordinarily expressive face. The puppet is mostly low-tech, except her eyes, which the inside performer manipulates remotely using a tiny computer. The puppet’s mechanics are similar to the oversized Gorg puppets on the much-loved 80s Jim Henson production Fraggle Rock.    

“Little Amal is a beautiful way to see how people can come together behind a common cause,” says Adrina from Brooklyn. She appreciated all the different languages spoken in the crowd, from German to Spanish to Arabic.

Many in the audience were immigrants themselves. Sarah, from Australia, noted her privilege in being able to come to America with a visa and apply for a green card. “Not everyone’s that lucky,” she said. “There’s a lot of refugees and immigrants in this country that have not been given the same luxury to live here freely.” 

Others, like Domenica from Brooklyn, were the children of immigrants. Domenica identified strongly with Little Amal. Her mother, a 51-year-old Ecuadorian migrant, had died three months ago very suddenly. “My mom was my whole world,” said Domenica. “So for the past three months, I’ve been this little girl looking for my mom. This is the thing: We look at a situation like the refugees and we’re removed. It’s not happening to us until it does, and then you realize, ‘We’re all Amal.’ ” 

Still others in the audience, like nine-year-old Neon, were children themselves. Neon had studied the project in school before coming with his mother and some family friends. “This was fun,” he said.

Many in the audience had come to more than one Little Amal event, such as Heather from Brooklyn. “We were thinking it would be wonderful if she could meet the busses of refugees that are arriving at our doorstep now,” she said. 

Darren, from Manhattan, had come to the event with low expectations, and found himself moved. “This is the stuff that makes New York livable,” he said. “I’m leaving feeling uplifted and a little more aware of what’s going on. This was a special night.”

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