On the bright, clear morning of September 14, a 10-year-old girl flew to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. Like the millions of travelers who arrive at JFK each year, this one looked tired and anxious as she looked around the arrivals board and walked through the terminal. Unlike the other travelers, she was 12 feet tall and was controlled by four puppeteers.
The puppet is Little Amal, a larger than life representation of a young refugee from Syria, a Middle Eastern country on the Mediterranean Sea between Turkey and Lebanon. The civil war in Syria has been going on for almost 12 years, forcing many people to flee for their safety. Amal is meant to represent her country’s refugees and so many others, many of whom are children.
Amal walked for the first time in 2021, through 12 countries. She now visits all five New York boroughs on a 17-day tour. It’s a collaboration that includes Walk Productions and a local performance space, St. Ann’s Warehouse.
At JFK, his march was accompanied by a haunting and dark excerpt from the opera “Satyagraha”, by composer Philip Glass. The music was performed by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and sung by 23 members of its children’s choir.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, musical director of the Metropolitan, conducted the piece. He says he chose it because it reflects “the feeling of loneliness and the rejection of wandering through the world”. But he says the piece also offers a sense of hope, which he wanted to convey through Amal’s peers in the choir.
Choir members said they knew about Amal before the day’s event as well as some of the struggles the refugees endured.
Marcus Agrippa, a ninth-grade student at Brooklyn Friends School who uses the pronouns they/them, said they learned about the plight of refugees in class. “We talked about people having to run or hide from everything that’s going on around them, and I thought it was really cool that they decided to [show] in puppet form.
Jesse Rambler, 11, has spoken about how unfair it is for children to have to leave their homes.
“It’s really unfortunate…because they have to do it and it’s not their fault,” said Jesse, a sixth-grader at Special Music School in New York. “It happens because of wars or something else that happened in their home country. … They’re just unlucky and they have to be separated from their families when they don’t shouldn’t.
Umayma Ben Agrippa, 11, speaks Arabic – Syria’s official language – and feels a special connection to Amal.
“I know his name means ‘Little Hope’,” she said. Umayma learned about the puppet from the Walk With Amal website (walkwithamal.org) and another Syrian refugee family in the book “Other Words for Home”, by Jasmine Warga.
The sixth-grade student at the German International School in New York said Amal helps people understand “how difficult it is to flee your country and lose your family and friends”. She was also shocked by Amal’s size.
Andrea Wang, a sophomore at Stuyvesant High School, was impressed by the performance of the puppeteers – each arm controlled by a different person; a third puppeteer inside his body, controlling the rest of his movements; and a fourth directs them through headphones. “They made it real. I could see they captured a child’s innocence and curiosity,” she said.
Chorus members said they look forward to following the rest of Amal’s journey, which will include events at city landmarks and community gathering spots. They were also happy to be part of his first moments in New York.
“I just want to raise awareness for these people who are hurting and having to go through these difficult times,” Andrea said.
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