The 12-foot-tall Syrian refugee puppet traveled from Turkey to Britain last year. Now, she will spend nearly three weeks in the five boroughs taking part in numerous events.
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As her head peeked out from above metal barriers, Little Amal widened her eyes as she took in the arrivals terminal at Kennedy International Airport on Wednesday. She looked left, then right, clutching her big green suitcase with its rainbow and sun stickers. She was, as newcomers to New York City so often are, a little nervous, and a little lost.
But then, some music. As Little Amal lumbered through the terminal, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, its music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and its children’s chorus began to perform music of welcome: the final chorus from Philip Glass’s opera about Gandhi’s early life, “Satyagraha” — whose title translates loosely to “resistance.”
Amal, a 10-year-old Syrian refugee puppet, appeared transfixed by the music — much like the many travelers strolling by with their suitcases appeared transfixed by the 12-foot-tall puppet suddenly towering before them. Still, she was trepidatious, a tad reluctant to approach the orchestra. At least, that is, until a chorus member — a girl wearing a sunflower yellow shirt — went up to her and took her by the hand.
Amal has traveled across Europe and met with Ukrainian refugees in Poland. Now she has made her way to the Big Apple with big plans. For the rest of this month, she will tour all five boroughs, visiting with children, artists, politicians and community leaders as she begins a search for her uncle, and, her creators hope, helps highlight the experience, hardship and beauty of millions of displaced refugees.
Her extended walk through New York City will include more than 50 events of welcome like the one at the airport on Wednesday. She will pick flowers at a community garden in Queens, walk across the High Bridge in the Bronx, ride the Staten Island Ferry, dance in the streets of Washington Heights and find herself amid a Syrian wedding procession in Bay Ridge.
“She will render visibility to something people don’t want to see,” said Amir Nizar Zuabi, the artistic director of the Walk Productions, which is presenting the public art involving Amal, along with St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.
Amal has already traveled quite a distance — 5,000 miles from Turkey to Britain last year — in search of her mother. And on Wednesday, when she stepped into the arrivals terminal she was greeted by a top-flight welcome committee.
“Opera is about dreaming and it’s also about reflecting our world,” Nézet-Séguin told The New York Times before the welcome. “Especially in the past years and months, the Met has been showing how important it is to welcome everyone to our opera house and also to really, truly respond to our times and connect with everyone in the world.”
“I know this is going to be a very moving event,” he added.
For those unfamiliar with Little Amal’s story and her journey, here is a look at who Amal is, where she has been, where she is going — and why.
Amal, whose name means “hope” in Arabic, is operated by up to four people, including one person on stilts. Designed by the Handspring Puppet Company based in South Africa, Amal is delicate — her arms and upper body are made of bamboo canes — and she sometimes requires maintenance.
The puppet is the protagonist in what is ostensibly a traveling theater project meant to remind a news-fatigued public about the children fleeing violence and persecution. Syrian refugees garnered considerable attention in 2015 and 2016 as they fled the country. The Walk in Europe followed a route similar to the one taken by some Syrians who fled.
As it happened, Amal began her European walk in the summer of 2021, shortly after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, which spurred a fresh migration crisis in Europe. Over four months, Amal crossed the continent, stopping at refugee camps, town squares and the Royal Opera House in London. To date, she has been part of more than 190 events in more than 80 towns, cities and villages in 12 countries.
“We were really taken by the amount of people who took to the streets to welcome her,” Zuabi said during a recent interview conducted via Zoom. “It became very clear that while the governments are talking on a certain level on this issue, the people of the cities are willing to engage.”
Now Amal is continuing her journey in New York.
“New York’s ethos — or at least the way it perceives itself — is this great human endeavor created by wave on wave of migration,” Zuabi said. “New Yorkers celebrate what they have achieved through this melting pot of migrations and how stories have amalgamated for growth and for culture. Taking Amal here was a way to investigate that and also investigate the United States in a very particular moment.
“How do you want to welcome her?” he added. “I truly hope that in this very busy, very hectic city, people will take a moment and come and be empathetic and reach out to each other through this stranger.”
As was the case in Europe, many of Little Amal’s stops are planned and include visits with artistic and institutional leaders; other encounters may be more spontaneous. And there are plans in the works, officials say, for a later trip across America.
“It’s one big theater show happening for free on your streets,” Zuabi said. “You don’t need to travel far to a fancy theater and get dressed — you can walk down in your pajamas if you want.”
Amal’s first stop was in Gaziantep, a city in southern Turkey just 40 miles from the Syrian border. It’s where many Syrian refugees have settled. At one point, she visited a park where Syrian children sang to her; another group gave her a handmade trunk, filled with gifts for her journey.
Amal met some resistance in Greece. She had planned to visit the Greek World Heritage site of Meteora, known for Orthodox monasteries perched upon towering rocks. But a local council banned her scheduled picnic on the grounds that a “Muslim doll from Syria” shouldn’t be performing in a space important to Greek Orthodox believers. (Amal’s religion has never been specified.)
Later, in Larissa, in central Greece, people pelted Amal with eggs, fruit and even stones. Then in Athens, her planned events drew protests and counterprotests.
Upon arriving in Rome, Amal went to the Vatican, strolled through St. Peter’s Square, hugged a bronze statue depicting 140 migrants and met Pope Francis, a vocal supporter of refugees. She proceeded to the Teatro India, one of Rome’s most well-known theaters, where paintings, collages and digital works by the Syrian artist Tammam Azzam flashed up on a wall behind her. The works were nightmarish visions of the war-torn home she’d left behind.
At a town square, with locals leaning out of apartment windows, Amal danced to the music performed by a group of refugee and migrant rappers. Then she headed for the beach, where she was joined by 30 other puppets her size. Joyce DiDonato, the American opera singer, offered a serenade.
To close out her long journey, Amal went to Manchester, where thousands of fans waited for her at the Castlefield Bowl, many expecting her to be reunited with her mother. As she took her final steps, a flock of wooden puppet swallows surrounded her and then, in a burst of smoke, an image of a woman’s face appeared — her mother in spirit, if not person.
“Daughter, you’ve got so far — so very far away from home — and it’s cold, so stay warm,” a gentle voice intoned in Arabic. “I’m proud of you.”
Since completing her 2021 journey, Amal has traveled to Lviv and to several cities in Poland to visit Ukrainian refugee children and families who were forced to flee after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
After her arrival at Kennedy Airport on Wednesday, Little Amal will set out for Jamaica, Queens, with her big suitcase. She may get some help navigating the city from her friends at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning. But how will she fare in Astoria when night falls?
Little Amal will return to Queens on Sept. 21 to visit Corona and Jackson Heights.
Little Amal will not leave New York without seeing all of the sights. While in Manhattan, she has planned visits to Grand Central Terminal, the New York Public Library, Times Square, Lincoln Center and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Later in her trip, she will go to City Hall, and visit Washington Heights, Harlem, Chinatown and several other neighborhoods.
As it turns out, Amal has some roots in Brooklyn: In 2018, St. Ann’s Warehouse presented an Off Broadway play, “The Jungle,” that introduced the character of Amal.
The play will return to St. Ann’s early next year.
“We left like we needed her here,” said Susan Feldman, the president and artistic director of St. Ann’s Warehouse, an organizer of Little Amal’s New York walk.
“If you ask me what is the best thing to do, you want to walk with her,” Feldman said. “The best times are when people first see her.”
During her time in the borough, Amal will make stops at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Green-Wood Cemetery and several Brooklyn neighborhoods. She will also make multiple visits to St. Ann’s Warehouse, including on her last day in the city, on Oct. 2.
Amal will visit Mott Haven in search of the waterfront. She is also interested in crossing the High Bridge but may need help from the community to overcome her fear of heights.
Amal will ride the Staten Island Ferry, and head to Snug Harbor, where she will be welcomed by a parade.
Alex Marshall contributed reporting.