Little Amal in Britain: giant puppet of Syrian girl reaches her journey's end

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The transcontinental odyssey of Little Amal will begin its final stage this week when the giant puppet of a nine-year-old Syrian girl reaches the shores of the UK after walking thousands of miles across Europe.

© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Rafael Yaghobzadeh/AP

Bells will chime and choirs will sing as Little Amal appears on the beach on Tuesday in Folkestone, Kent, after making the same cross-Channel journey that has been taken so far this year by more than 17,000 people seeking refuge from conflict, hunger and persecution.

On the last leg of her journey, Little Amal will visit Canterbury, London, Oxford, Coventry, Birmingham, Sheffield and Barnsley before the extraordinary and complex 14-week travelling street theatre ends in Manchester on 3 November.

“It’s been challenging, it’s been difficult at times, but it’s also been amazing and incredible,” said David Lan, one of the producers of The Walk, who has been “on this journey right from the beginning three years ago, and on every step of the way” since Little Amal left Gaziantep near the Turkish-Syrian border at the end of July.

The idea of Little Amal’s journey in search of her missing mother evolved from The Jungle, a highly acclaimed play about young refugees in a camp near Calais that opened at the Young Vic in London in 2017. The play’s producers, the Good Chance theatre company plus Lan, Stephen Daldry and Tracey Seaward, came up with the idea of taking its message of displacement, loss, dignity and hope to villages, towns and cities across Europe.

© Photograph: Rafael Yaghobzadeh/AP The Little Amal show in Paris.

Little Amal, whose name means hope in Arabic, was created by Handspring, the company that made the equine puppets in War Horse. She stands 3.5 metres (11ft 5in) tall and is operated by a team of eight puppeteers working shifts to control her legs, arms and facial features. “They create the emotional life of the puppet,” said Lan.

Since leaving Gaziantep, Little Amal and her entourage of about 25 people have navigated Covid border requirements to cross from Turkey to Greece and then through Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and France to the UK.

Along the way, they have taken part in concerts, parties and workshops. In Rome, Little Amal was blessed by Pope Francis. In many places, thousands of local people have walked with her through their town or village.

But the most powerful connections had been with refugees, said Lan. “People who are marginalised, shoved to the side, see a representative of themselves or their children centre-stage and being celebrated. That’s very moving.”

Only in one place has the welcome been less than warm. In Kalambaka, a village in northern Greece, which is home to ancient Greek Orthodox monasteries built into rocks, the village council decided not to receive a “Muslim doll from Syria”, as the mayor described Amal. “It’s distressing, but it’s how the world is,” said Lan.

In London, Little Amal will celebrate her 10th birthday on Sunday 24 October at a party at the V&A. Children from all over the capital have been invited to join in musical performances and workshops. Yotam Ottolenghi is coordinating a team of chefs to create a giant birthday cake consisting of several hundred cupcakes in a rainbow of colours and flavours.

Ottolenghi said: “Telling the stories of refugees in general and that particular journey that Amal is taking is such a positive thing in a very bleak situation. She’s going to meet lots of London kids who are going to celebrate her birthday and get a glimpse into her journey. And what better way to do it than with a patchwork of little cakes that have been baked by different chefs?”

Lan, who described Little Amal’s journey as a theatrical show on an 8,000km stage, said there had been no major technical problems so far, but there had been many logistical challenges in travelling, rehearsing and performing across eight countries.

“It’s a travelling circus, a big touring show. So many people have wanted to be part of it. There has been tremendous goodwill directed towards us.

“We’re not politicians, we’re saying to people: remember refugees are people. We hope that the memory of this odd, beautiful child walking through a village or city or over the mountains helps change the weather a little bit.”

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