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Little Amal: A Puppet's Odyssey and the Refugee Crisis

Charis Horsley and Rio Henry-Quigley discuss how the artwork raises awareness of refugee journeys

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Image Credit: Oscar Morris

Little Amal is the name given to the 3.5 metre tall puppet of a nine year old Syrian refugee Girl. Standing on two legs, with a person inside her chest animating her face, and a puppeteer on each of her arms, she has walked 8,000 kilometres across eight countries. Travelling the same route as many refugees, she searches for her ‘mother’ in a narrative to raise awareness for refugee children across the world. As the puppet steps out of the theatre, we see a performance of reality before us - using art in an ironic imitation of something shockingly real.

The puppet is a vibrant work that has emerged from the theatrical world created by The Handspring Puppet Company. Her skeleton made of cane and carbon fibre is brought to life by the four operators controlling her movements. A friend of mine named Oscar Morris who visited the parade in London commented that, “from an engineering point of view, she is incredible, managing to walk elegantly while towering over her audience”. As she walks, she performs the personality of a young child in a new environment; her motions and body language are curious and intrigued by her surroundings. This heightened vulnerability only emphasises the youth and inexperience of the child.

The Handspring Puppet Company were also the masterminds who created the puppet Warhorse; an eight foot tall horse with 20 moving joints, made from similar materials to Little Amal. This was used by the National Theatre, a production seen by over eight million people in 11 different countries. It tells the story of Michael Morpurgo’s novel, of a farm horse called Joey, who endeavours to find his way back home from the battlefields of World War One.

A word which has been used to describe both Little Amal and Warhorse is ‘Odyssey’. Both characters embark on long and wandering journeys, with Little Amal’s being physical and Warhorse’s taking place within a narrative. In central London, Little Amal and Warhorse performed a dance together as both Hand-spring puppets met. This image captured their innocence in action, with a young girl meeting a horse highlighting the vulnerable nature of both children and animals.

Despite being well received along the majority of her journey, Little Amal was not warmly welcomed into Larissa City in Central Greece. A small group of far-right protesters threw stones as she passed, while others held up religious symbols and condemned supporters of the initiative. It was inevitable that the disparity of views on refugees would be transferred onto the puppet – a physical symbol of the refugee child. The puppet managing to get through the whole length of the journey without conflicting or xenophobic responses would have been a miracle. Although Little Amal is only an amalgamation of carbon fibre and cane, the interaction still provokes a startling image of a nine-year old girl absorbing the shocks of stones and verbal abuse.

The nature of art to symbolise a concept allows there to be a medium separating the reality and the person viewing the art. The viewer is displaced. Although you might watch the puppet of a little girl parade through your local area in Britain, still very few of us can imagine watching real refugee children walking down the street and reacting the same way. Were the groups in Greece responding to the art or to the concept of the little girl?

Morris speaks about the power of art to represent a whole issue, saying, “we understood it wasn’t really a young girl, and seeing someone puppeteer reminds us that there are real people behind this project. This toing and froing from the big picture (the distance walked and the struggle of refugees) to intimate human to human contact (a small group of people put together a puppet who you are looking at), I think that’s what makes it so powerful”. This impact of human interaction is particularly evocative when watching children meet Little Amal. Scenes of young children holding the huge hands of the little girl, and dancing with the puppet points out the universal nature of the child – those who need to be protected and have fun. The visual comparison allows the crowds to imagine their own brothers, sisters, and children in Little Amal’s position.

It is interesting that Little Amal is firstly a child, and secondly a girl. There is a certain vulnerability in these two traits, something which is universal across all countries and cultures. This artistic decision is clever in its ability to evoke sympathy in people across the whole of Europe and even the world. Whether you knew her or not, everyone has a mother, and the natural instinct to protect and sympathise with young children is something which the majority of us can understand. Little Amal embarks on a journey in search of her mother, to find a new life where she can grow up and receive an education. Travelling alone and in search of her mother brings an emotive element of human nature to the journey, showing the human need for compassion and maternal guidance. It forces crowds to reflect on their family members and the consequences their displacement would have.

In the recent journey through London, parts were travelled from outside of the National Theatre, down Southbank to The Queens Walk. Morris again commented on the experience, saying, “I think her story and journey is what really speaks to people; the puppet has walked the route many refugees do to find safety. This isn’t to say the puppet itself wasn’t incredible, just that the story is what pulls at the heart while the realisation of the project engages the mind”.

The Handspring Puppet Company’s work shines a direct light on the horrific experiences suffered by the children from the Calais refugee camp, nicknamed the ‘Jungle’. This is a place of considerable safety for refugees, in comparison with the long and harsh journey. However, with the increasing pressure from the French government, as well as the expanding population of the camp, spacing became cramped and encouraged violence. This rise correlates with a high influx of refugees and the blockage of the UK border. In Calais, the “Medecins du Monde” estimated there to be roughly 30 drinkable water taps and 20 toilets for over 3000 people sleeping rough. When the camp was eventually destroyed through forced eviction in 2016, for weeks over 1500 people including 200 to 300 unaccompanied children were forced to sleep in shipping containers.

The Calais Jungle is just one of many blockades. Alex Belham, an acquaintance of mine who volunteered in the Petra refugee camp in Katerini, spoke of the freezing temperatures, and lack of food, water and shelter experienced by the inhabitants of the camp, as well as the increasing hostility of the Greek authorities. On one occasion, Belham and some refugee friends were arrested, illegally detained and even beaten by the police. He was only released on the realisation that he owned a UK passport. Most of us are aware of the refugee crisis; it is regurgitated like a broken record on the radio.

Yet simultaneously this awareness is not enough to change policies. ‘Refugee’ has become a buzzword in the media. In British small talk, in passing on the street, or over a morning coffee, everyone can share their distanced opinions. But within the mass hysteria of the media and conversation, more intricate challenges in refugee camps are lost in all the noise. Health care, education, abortions and contraception are but a few.

However one sees the immigration crisis, be it a ‘threat’ to the security of European countries, or victims of war in search of a better quality of life, children have no agency over their fates. Most can agree that all young children deserve safety, shelter and education, no matter the political inclination. Little Amal serves as a bridge to unite opposing political sides of the crisis, and to draw attention to the heart of the problem: aiding the children stuck in the centre, through no fault of their own.

The puppet is a unique form of activist art. Many artists express their concerns through graffiti or murals such as the Ghanian artist, Dreph, formerly Neequaye Dsane, whose series of ten street murals all around the UK celebrates first generation immigrants, focusing on race and identity. His murals include depictions of human rights activists helping refugees and asylum seekers integrate into society. These murals, although visible to all, do not have the same interactive impact as the Little Amal puppet. The active mobility of the puppet provides the advantage of globalisation, physically connecting countries through travel in a way that is necessary for any solutions. The whole initiative, from the group of four manning the puppet, to the eight countries crossed, shouts out about cooperation and bringing people together.

The puppet’s name itself is Arabic for ‘Hope’; a desire for something to happen, a change and a solution to the continuing problem. Yet it also communicates the message that life must go on no matter what. Above all, the Little Amal initiative communicates to the world the need for compassion and the need for change.

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