Little Amal, a 12-foot-tall puppet depicting a 10-year-old Syrian refugee, has seen about a dozen countries, visited London’s Royal Opera House and other sightseeing destinations, and even met the Pope.
But this fall, Amal will embark on an entirely new adventure, crossing the Atlantic for the first time in a trip to New York intended to promote an open embrace of refugees and immigrants.
Amal is scheduled to arrive at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Sept. 14, with plans to travel to all five boroughs, visiting with children, artists, politicians and community leaders along the way, according to an announcement on Thursday from the Walk Productions, which is co-producing the visit with St. Ann’s Warehouse.
Her original 5,000-mile journey from Turkey to England last year — which included visits to migrant camps — was designed to highlight the plight of millions of Syrian refugees in Europe who traveled long distances across the continent to flee the country’s civil war. The project was supposed to end there, said its artistic director, Amir Nizar Zuabi, but about two-thirds of the way through the journey, the creative team realized that Amal could have a future beyond those specific geopolitical circumstances.
“She became an excuse for communities to come together and be kind to a foreigner,” Zuabi said, “and by doing that, understand something about themselves — understand what there is to celebrate in their communities.”
The towering puppet — which is operated by three people, including one person on stilts — will visit St. Ann’s, and several other New York cultural institutions will be involved in her trip, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lincoln Center and the Classical Theater of Harlem. The visit, which has a budget of over $1 million, is planned to conclude in early October with a trip to the Statue of Liberty.
In 2018, St. Ann’s presented an Off Broadway play, “The Jungle,” that inspired the character of Amal. First staged at the Young Vic Theater before transferring to the West End, “The Jungle” is based on what its writers, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, observed when they set up an interactive arts center in a migrant camp in Calais, France. The play will be returning to St. Ann’s next February.
Susan Feldman, the artistic director of St. Ann’s, said she first saw Amal’s effect on the public during a trip last year to an elementary school in a Paris suburb, where the students started screaming and following her around as soon as they laid eyes on her.
“She became a bit of a Pied Piper,” Feldman said. “It was very magical.”
Although Amal’s presence is not overtly political, Feldman said she felt that the visit to the United States would send an important message in a country where immigration has become a “political football” and migrant children have faced perilous living conditions.
To Feldman, Amal’s visits in Europe felt like a parade of innocence and hope. “To have that in the streets in a very visible way could be very beautiful,” she said.
Designed by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa, Amal is quite delicate — her arms and upper body are made of bamboo canes — and has needed plenty of maintenance over her months of travel, Zuabi said. Earlier this year, she visited young Ukrainian refugees in Poland.
But New York is not likely to be her last journey: Amal has had requests to visit countries around the world, he said, and there are plans in the works for trips elsewhere in the U.S. next year.