‘People felt threatened even by a puppet refugee’: Little Amal’s epic walk through love and fear

In Greece, far-right protesters threw things at her as she walked through the streets, local councillors voted to ban her from visiting a village of Orthodox monasteries, and protests in Athens meant her route had to be diverted. In France, the mayor of Calais raised objections to her presence.

At times, the 8,000km journey across Europe of a 3.5m-tall puppet child refugee highlighted the hostility experienced by refugees who have been travelling along the same route from the Syrian border to the UK for years. Elsewhere, this ambitious theatrical project has triggered the scenes of welcome its artistic directors hoped to inspire when they embarked on this walk in July.

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

“If I was to say to you we had nothing but warmth and support along the 8,000km journey, it would not be true,” he says. “But what Little Amal seems to do is take the experience of people who are quite brutally marginalised and put it in the centre. This is about goodwill. It is an opportunity for people to be sympathetic and imagine what it would be like to be her.”

All along the route, the production has visited refugee camps and organised creative projects with real child refugees. In Gaziantep – at the Turkish border with Syria, where the walk began – refugee children made lanterns to welcome her. On the Turkish coast, she traced a path of abandoned shoes by the beach, representing thousands of refugees who have drowned attempting to cross the sea. In Italy, the puppet went to the Vatican and shook hands with the pope. In Brussels, thousands of children wrote letters to her, forcing them to think about the experience of being a child refugee.

Constructed by War Horse creators Handspring, the puppet is intensely expressive, pacing above crowds, observing everything while interacting with children, registering happiness, anger, and occasional pain – all the emotions that a nine-year-old child might experience. “She’s very big,” says Lan, former artistic director of the Young Vic theatre. “So everybody can see her, and she’s very brilliantly designed, very elegant in her movements. She’s being celebrated and it’s very powerful.”

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

The aim is to present an “artistic moment that creates compassion” rather than to score political points, artistic director Amir Nizar Zuabi says. Producers have not attempted to portray the bleaker end of the child migrant experience – trips beneath the undercarriages of lorries, dangerous boat trips, hostility from border guards.

The puppet will cross the Channel legally, packed away in a truck, so will not provoke the attention of British politicians who are this autumn debating the nationality and borders bill, which plans to punish people who arrive in the UK by unauthorised routes with jail sentences of up to four years. A choral performance will greet her in Folkestone, on the coast where thousands of asylum seekers have arrived in perilously small boats this summer. Later, during the walk through Britain, the production will visit St Paul’s Cathedral and the Royal Opera House in London before finishing in Manchester.

The actual journey has very little in common with the experience a refugee child might actually have had, Lan says. “We’ve got to be really clear about that. The route we’re taking is a route which refugees have taken but we stay in hotels, we have passports.” At times the juxtaposition of the artistic exercise and the daily reality of life for Europe’s homeless refugee population has been difficult to navigate. Last week in Brussels, the production team stayed in a hotel, where they found refugee families sleeping on their doorstep.

Later the route took them past a church where refugees living inside have been on hunger strike, demanding a regularisation of their immigration status. “Two women were holding up a sheet of paper, which said in French, ‘We are also human beings.’ I felt a pang, thinking, ‘Good God. We’re going to bring a puppet in here. This is real – what we’re doing is a play.’” But inside, he says, the refugees were very moved by the arrival of a representation of an unaccompanied child refugee. “The women said, ‘Thank you Amal.’”

The difficulties in Greece were also mixed with very moving moments. After the councillors voted against allowing the production to visit the monasteries of Meteora, the residents of a nearby town went out of their way to show support.

Yolanda Markopoulou, The Walk’s producer 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 to see how they felt threatened, even by a puppet representation of a nine-year-old girl. We understood she wasn’t welcome, and of course refugees aren’t welcome everywhere. There was a parallel in what happened in Greece to what happens to actual refugees – there are always people who welcome them and people who do not.”

In Larissa, in Greece, about 300 children had gathered with puppets they had made to welcome Little Amal to the city, when rightwing protesters arrived and starting throwing stones at the performance, hitting the children. “The children had prepared for many months,” says Markopoulou. “Then people arrived and started throwing objects at the kids – it was very harsh. Little Amal was in the headlines for days. People tried really hard to surpass all that negativity and sometimes a negative response can bring more attention than something that’s more peaceful. The whole country was talking about it. It was very impactful.”

The production has been immensely complex logistically, passing through eight countries at a time of rapidly changing Covid travel restrictions and wildfires in southern Europe – a feat challenging even for co-producer Tracey Seaward, who produced the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony in London.

She believes the educational aspect of the tour has made it particularly worthwhile. “We’ve been trying to get people to understand issues of migration and why welcome is so fundamentally important,” she says. A parallel fundraising exercise, the Amal fund, is collecting funds to support grassroots organisations help both young and older refugees who have missed opportunities for education.

The positives have outweighed the negatives, artistic director Zuabi says: “We have seen a lot of generosity. We’re doing this project to celebrate our shared humanity. We have met people ready to open their hearts and cities and think differently about this issue. An easy way to approach it is to say, ‘Let’s build fences, seclude ourselves, get out of Europe.’ But we wanted people to think about how they can welcome these people so they aren’t marginalised. Our nine-year-old, three-and-a-half metre giant has brought 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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