NEW YORK: Little Amal, a 12-foot (3.7-meter) puppet of a Syrian refugee, will journey across the United States this fall, visiting key places in America’s history to raise awareness about immigration and migration.
The puppet of the 10-year-old girl will visit the US Capitol, Boston Common, Joshua Tree National Park and the Edmund Pettus Bridge among other sites during a trek which starts in Boston on Sept. 7 and ends Nov. 5 along the US-Mexico border.
“There is something in the act of welcoming a stranger which redefines you,” says Amir Nizar Zuabi, the artistic director. “I think that’s part of what we’re trying to create when walking into places that have a beautiful, complicated, defining history.”
Stops are also planned for Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, the Tennessee cities of Nashville and Memphis, New Orleans, the Texas cities of Austin, Houston, San Antonio and El Paso, as well as the California cities of Los Angeles and San Diego.
“Obviously there’s a lot of specific points in our American history that we felt that we needed to address and that’s the reason why we’re starting in Boston,” says Enrico Dau Yang Wey, lead puppeteer and co-associate artistic director. “The reason why we’re finishing in San Diego is that there’s just such a thin line between the United States and Mexico.”
Little Amal demands empathy, the puppet of a vulnerable, naive girl who is in a strange place after surviving a long ordeal alone.
“She’s just a symbol of millions of children,” says Zuabi. “Just having a community breathe together and walk with Amal for a stretch in the streets becomes a very, very meaningful act.”
Organizers are reaching out to community artists and leaders at each of the 35 stops — including places revered in Civil Rights Movement history like Selma, Alabama, and recent scenes of gun violence like Uvalde, Texas — to create more than 100 special events anchored by each place visited.
“We work very closely with our local partners and try and understand what is the story they’re trying to tell and try to co-create an event that resonates in this place to this community,” says Zuabi. “I think that’s part of why this project becomes so emotional for many people.”
Little Amal was created by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa, who made the award-winning puppets for the hit show “War Horse.” She requires four puppeteers at each visit, three to move her head and limbs and one to collect items people give her. A total of nine puppeteers will make the coast-to-coast trek with Little Amal.
“A lot of the ways we think about refugees, about immigrants, about migration, are formed and informed in American,” says Zuabi. “In a way, that’s a discussion we want to join and learn and listen.”
Last year, the puppet made a 17-day circuit through every corner of New York City, including joining a reading of the book “Julián Is a Mermaid” at the Brooklyn Public Library and a drum circle in Harlem. This June, she will be in Toronto.
The puppet completed a 5,000-mile (8,050-kilometer) trek across Europe in 2021, from the Syrian-Turkish border to northwest England, traveling through 12 countries — including greeting refugees from Ukraine at a Polish train station and stopping at refugee camps in Greece — and meeting with Pope Francis.
Wey describes Little Amal as a “miraculous thing that pulls people together suddenly” to create a “collective sense of empathy and a collective sense of awe.”
“Every time it’s different and every time you learn a little bit more. It’s one of those things where we learn on the job,” he adds. “I have to get a new pair of walking boots.”