Little Amal is actually quite big. The nine year-old Syrian girl is travelling from her country’s border with Turkey to Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and France in search of her mother. Next month she will arrive in the UK to celebrate her birthday and to take part in an international festival in Manchester.
Amal’s 8,000 kilometre journey is designed to represent the stories of millions of young refugees who are forced to leave their homes and often travel alone without their parents. She comes from Aleppo and is looking for her mum, who went off to find food and never returned.
In total, around 6.8 million Syrians are now refugees or asylum seekers and another 6.7 million people have been forced to leave their homes since the Arab Spring protests began a decade ago, and now live in poor conditions within Syria. Together that’s more than half of the country’s population. About half of the people affected by the crisis are children.
And given last month’s takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban in the wake of the bungled US withdrawal, focusing on the principal human victims – especially the youngest – makes perfect sense.
The Walk project was meant to have taken place between April and July but was delayed by the Covid pandemic. The journey of Little Amal, from Gaziantep, near the Turkish-Syrian border, has been taking place since late July. It aims to draw attention to the refugee experience by following a route similar to that taken by Syrians who escaped their bloody civil war. It combines art, music and faith.
The 3.5 metre giant (11 foot) – twice as high as an average person – was designed by Handspring, the South African-based creator of the War Horse puppets. It is being operated by three teams of four puppeteers: one for each arm, one for her back, and one inside her body, walking on stilts and also operating a contraption called “the harp,” a complex system of strings that control the puppet’s facial expressions.
Little Amal’s body is made from moulded cane and her head, arms and legs made from carbon fibre. “She can convey shock, shyness and curiosity through the lowering of her eyes and the graceful undulation of her arms,” wrote one journalist who encountered her.
About 250 partner organisations and artists are involved in the project, with more than 80 free events taking place in countries along the way. Over 70 towns, villages and cities will welcome Little Amal with art, from major street parties and city performances to more intimate community events.
In Gazientep, excited children held up lanterns to guide Amal through the city. And on the Greek island of Chios, choirs sang to welcome her as an orchestra played. Elsewhere in Greece Little Amal encountered hostility – from Christian communities hostile to Muslims.
In Naples she was tired, had had enough and will have a tantrum which, Vesuvius-like, releases energy, which brought hundreds of dancers and musicians to join her. Little Amal visited the Vatican City and was even received by Pope Francis.
“Amal is big and beautiful, and meeting her is a pleasure,” said Cardinal Michael Czerny, who also met her. “But she immediately reminds us that meeting vulnerable migrants, insecure workers and asylum seekers in our midst requires more than just a glance.”
In Cologne, Amal was scheduled to share apple pie with elderly people and hear their stories of growing up after the second world war. In Marseille she will join hundreds of dancers in life jackets in a commemoration of all the refugees who have died at sea.
In Paris, a refugee camp installation will be created outside the Insitut du Monde Arabe close to the Seine, and Amal will explore the tents – with shadow art and sound installations – for signs of home.
In late October, Amal is due to arrive in the English port of Folkestone. She will celebrate her 10th birthday in London with a dawn chorus performance at the Royal Opera House and a party at the iconic Victoria and Albert Museum, to which children will be invited. She will then make her way through Oxford, Sheffield, Coventry and Birmingham before ending her journey in Manchester where, it turns out, her mother has settled.
Amir Nizar Zuabi, a Palestinian playwright , and this impressive project’s artistic director, has commented that the purpose of The Walk was to highlight refugees’ potential, not only their dire plight. “The attention of the world is elsewhere right now, which makes it more important than ever to reignite the conversation about the refugee crisis and to change the narrative around it,” he has said. “Yes, refugees need food and blankets, but they also need dignity and a voice.”
The Walk project is a major contribution to belief in the humanity of ordinary people faced with a global humanitarian crisis. Every one of them, with their baggage of suffering and dreams, needs and talents is waiting for a generous response from others. It really matters for the simple but inevitable reason that refugee children are not going to disappear any time soon.
by: IAN BLACK