By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
She’s dodged protesters in Greece, met the pope at the Vatican and posed beside the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Now a 12-foot-tall puppet is bringing her message to the United States as she walks the streets of New York City.
Artists created Little Amal, whose name means hope in Arabic, to raise awareness about refugee children. Organizers of the theatrical project describe the puppet as a 10-year-old Syrian refugee searching for her uncle. She first made headlines as she trekked across Europe last year.
Now she’s drawing big crowds in the Big Apple at the same time as a growing number of asylum-seekers are arriving on buses from Texas.
Amir Nizar Zuabi, the artistic director behind the project, says he hopes the crowds who are welcoming the puppet’s arrival will keep that reality in mind.
“By showing her their welcome, maybe they can extend their welcome to real people that are coming to this city as we speak and need support and need empathy and need their help,” he said in a recent interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
Why use a large puppet to bring attention to the issue?
“When we think about refugees, we omit the fact that at least half of them are children,” said Zuabi, artistic director of The Walk Productions Limited. “Refugee children and unaccompanied minors and immigrant children are invisible in our societies, and giving them visibility was a big part of this project.”
Since her arrival in New York on September 14, Amal has been spotted at many iconic sites — walking through Grand Central Station, meeting with world leaders at the United Nations, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge and getting lost in Times Square.
“New York City’s a city of immigrants. Every one of us comes from somewhere else. That is the magic of this city — people of all backgrounds living together in one place. It doesn’t matter if your ancestors came on the Mayflower or fled war-torn conflict or arrived this morning on a bus from Texas,” New York Mayor Eric Adams says in a video message heralding Amal’s arrival that’s posted on the puppet’s Instagram feed. “We owe each other compassion, understanding and a helping hand.”
At St. Patrick’s Cathedral, migrants and refugees who’d only recently arrived in the city greeted Amal.
“There was something about her movements that made me feel like I was walking with her. … Her slow, humble steps and her eyes widening with wonderment when she entered the cathedral reflected the very reluctance of some of the refugee children that had come to greet her,” said Luz Tavarez, Catholic Charities of New York’s director of government and community relations, in a description posted on Catholic Charities’ website.
Organizers say it takes four puppeteers to bring the not-so-little Amal to life: “one on each arm, one supporting her back and one inside walking on stilts.”
“Together (they) create the sense that she’s a real little girl, though a very big one, walking down the road,” writer and producer David Lan told Amanpour last year as the puppet’s first journey was about to begin.
Lan said the idea for the project began with a play called “The Jungle,” about the creation and demolition of a refugee camp in Calais, France. The play included a character known as Little Amal.
“In the course of making the play, creating the show, we talked to many people — young people, old people, children — who had made the very long journey out of warfare, out of disaster, looking for safety. And we felt having heard from them of their experience…that something more than creating that play was necessary,” Lan said.
Since July 2021, organizers say the Little Amal puppet has traveled across 12 countries and covered more than 9,000 km (5,592 miles).
The reception hasn’t always been positive. In Larissa, Greece, protesters pelted the puppet with stones. But for the most part, Zuabi says, people around the world have responded to Little Amal with warmth and empathy.
Her stay in New York is scheduled to end on Sunday after dozens of events in all five of the city’s boroughs. From there, organizers haven’t revealed exactly where she will head next. But the puppet’s message, Zuabi says, is one they’re determined to keep spreading.
“When we set out to do this project, it was about trying to challenge the narrative. When we think of refugees, we think of misery, we think of hopelessness, and we wanted to show that refugees and immigrants can bring added value into our society,” Zuabi told Amanpour.
“They come with knowledge. They come with experience. They’re some of the most resilient people on planet Earth. And we wanted to celebrate their huge potential…to create something that was beautiful and joyous and connects communities together.”
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