“People felt threatened even by a puppet refugee”: little Amal’s epic walk through love and fear

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“People felt threatened even by a puppet refugee”: little Amal’s epic walk through love and fear


isIn Greece, far-right protesters threw objects at her as she walked the streets, local councilors voted to ban her from visiting a village of Orthodox monasteries, and protests in Athens forced her route to be hijacked . In France, the mayor of Calais has raised objections to his presence.

At times, the 8,000 km journey through Europe of a 3.5 m puppet refugee child highlighted the hostility experienced by refugees who take the same route from the Syrian border to the United Kingdom. United for years. Elsewhere, this ambitious theatrical project sparked the welcome scenes its artistic directors hoped to inspire when they embarked on the march in July.

As Little Amal prepares to cross the Channel to the UK on Tuesday for the final leg of his journey, producer David Lan says the exercise has forced thousands along the route to reflect on their attitudes towards refugees, especially to the hundreds of thousands of displaced children forced to flee their homes by conflict over the past decade.

Little Amal’s journey begins in Gaziantep, on the Turkish border with Syria. Photography: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

“If I told you that we had nothing but warmth and support throughout the 8,000 km journey, that wouldn’t be true,” he says. “But what Little Amal seems to do is take the experience of people who are quite brutally marginalized and put it at the center. It is about goodwill. It’s an opportunity for people to be nice and imagine what it would be like to be her.

Along the way, the production visited refugee camps and organized creative projects with real refugee children. In Gaziantep – on the Turkish border with Syria, where the march began – refugee children made lanterns to welcome him. On the Turkish coast, she made a path of abandoned shoes by the beach, depicting thousands of refugees who drowned trying to cross the sea. In Italy, the puppet went to the Vatican and hugged the hand of the pope. In Brussels, thousands of children wrote him letters, forcing them to reflect on the experience of being a refugee child.

Built by the creators of War Horse Handspring, the puppet is intensely expressive, pacing crowds, observing while interacting with children, registering happiness, anger and the occasional pain – all the emotions a nine-year-old can to feel. “She’s very tall,” says Lan, former artistic director of the Young Vic Theater. “So anyone can see her, and she’s very brilliantly designed, very elegant in her movements. It is celebrated and it is very powerful.

La petite Amal in Paris on October 15. Photographie : Rafael Yaghobzadeh/AP

An unaccompanied refugee child in search of his mother, the character of Amal (which means hope in Arabic) was developed from a play created by the refugee theater company Good Chance. It was launched in the Calais encampment at the height of the 2016 migrant movement. Former Calais refugees are among those who work as puppeteers for the production, manipulating her arms in greeting as she walks around in European cities.

The aim is to present an “artistic moment that creates compassion” rather than to score political points, explains artistic director Amir Nizar Zuabi. The producers did not attempt to portray the darker end to the migrant children’s experience – journeys under the undercarriages of trucks, dangerous boat journeys, hostility from border guards.

The puppet will cross the Channel legally, packed in a truck, so will not attract the attention of British politicians who are debating the Nationality and Borders Bill this autumn, which plans to punish people who arrive in the UK by unauthorized routes with prison sentences. up to four years. A choir will welcome him to Folkestone, on the coast where thousands of asylum seekers arrived this summer in dangerously small boats. Later, during the Walk Through Britain, the production will visit St Paul’s Cathedral and the Royal Opera House in London before concluding in Manchester.

Map of Little Amal

The actual trip has very little in common with the experience a refugee child might have had, Lan says. “We need to be very clear about this. The road we take is a road taken by refugees, but we stay in hotels, we have passports. Sometimes the juxtaposition of artistic exercise and the daily reality of the homeless refugee population in Europe has been difficult to navigate. Last week in Brussels, the production team stayed in a hotel, where they found refugee families sleeping on their doorsteps.

The road later took them to a church where the refugees living inside went on a hunger strike, demanding regularization of their immigration status. “Two women were holding a sheet of paper that said in French: ‘We are also human beings.’ I felt a pang in my heart as I thought, ‘God damn it. We’re going to bring a puppet here. It’s real – what we’re doing is a play. ‘ But inside, he said, the refugees were very moved by the arrival of a portrayal of an unaccompanied refugee child. “The women said, ‘Thank you, Amal’. “

Pope Francis welcomes little Amal to the Vatican.
Pope Francis welcomes little Amal to the Vatican. Photograph: Vatican Media / Reuters

The difficulties in Greece have also mixed with very moving times. After councilors voted against allowing the production to visit Meteora monasteries, residents of a nearby town did everything they could to show their support.

Yolanda Markopoulou, Producer of The Walk in Greece, says: “They thought we wanted to bring a Muslim element to Meteora and they weren’t welcoming, and we respected that. But it was interesting how threatened they felt, even by a puppet performance of a nine-year-old girl. We understood that she was not welcome, and of course refugees are not welcome everywhere. There was a parallel between what happened in Greece and what happens to real refugees – there are always people who take them in and people who don’t.

In Larissa, Greece, around 300 children had gathered with puppets they had made to welcome little Amal to the town, when right-wing protesters arrived and started throwing stones at the show, hitting them. children. “The children had been preparing for many months,” says Markopoulou. “Then people came in and started throwing things at the kids – it was really hard. Little Amal was in the headlines for days. People have really tried to overcome all of this negativity and sometimes a negative response can get more attention than something more peaceful. The whole country was talking about it. It was very impactful. “

Amal in Calais on October 17th.
Amal in Calais on October 17th. Photograph: François Lo Presti / AFP / Getty Images

Production has been extremely logistically complex, traversing eight countries at a time of Covid travel restrictions and rapidly evolving wildfires in southern Europe – a difficult feat even for co-producer Tracey Seaward, who produced the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics.

She thinks the educational aspect of the tour was particularly worth it. “We tried to get people to understand migration issues and why welcoming is so fundamentally important,” she says. A parallel fundraising exercise, the Amal Fund, raises funds to support local organizations that help refugees young and old who have missed out on educational opportunities.

The positives outweighed the negatives, says artistic director Zuabi: “We saw a lot of generosity. We are carrying out this project to celebrate our shared humanity. We have met people who are ready to open their hearts and their cities and think differently about this issue. A simple way to approach it is to say: “Let’s build fences, isolate ourselves, get out of Europe”. But we wanted people to think about how they can accommodate these people so that they are not marginalized. Our giant of nine years and three and a half meters brought us great joy. After almost two years of Covid, people are flocking to see her – but also to be together, which has been very touching. “

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