Traveling 12-Foot Puppet Aims to Stir Empathy in US

'Little Amal,' puppet of Syrian refugee, will trek from Boston to San Diego to raise migration awareness
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted May 31, 2023 6:10 PM CDT
Coming This Fall to US Cities: 'Little Amal' Puppet
A 12-foot puppet of a 10-year-old Syrian refuge named Little Amal walks around Grand Central Station in New York on Sept. 15. Little Amal will journey across the United States this fall, visiting key places in America's history in an attempt to raise awareness about immigration and migration.   (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Little Amal, a 12-foot 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 that 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 [that] redefines you," says Amir Nizar Zuabi, the project's artistic director, per the AP. "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; and the California cities of Los Angeles and San Diego. "Obviously [there are] 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's 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 [to] understand what ... the story [is] 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."

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Little Amal was created by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa, which 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. Last year, the puppet made a 17-day circuit through every corner of New York City, and she completed a 5,000-mile trek across Europe in 2021, traveling through 12 countries 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."

(More Syrian refugees stories.)

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