Little Amal travels with an entourage. It’s not just the crowds of onlookers who follow her down the street snapping as many photos and videos as they can, it’s also a full team working to help Little Amal travel around town from event to event, and a team of volunteers that help make events possible. This twelve-foot-tall puppet of a Syrian refugee child has gained notoriety and love as she has traveled from country to country.
Before arriving in New York to a gathering of fans at JFK airport she traveled all over the world and walked through Turkey to the UK. She started her journey in 2021 and has returned now to travel through all five boroughs of New York to bring a message of hope.
Amal means “hope” in Arabic, and her walk represents the journey many refugee children go through when they are separated from their homelands and often times their families as well. “It’s about social awareness. It’s about educating people about what it’s like to be a refugee, what it’s like to leave your home, what’s it’s like to start a new life all over again,” says Carol Sterling, a New York City-based puppeteer who’s spent her life working in educational puppetry. “Puppetry is an art form that is not just for entertainment, but for educational purpose, and hopefully positive social change.”
The Importance of Puppetry
Puppetry is often considered by the public to be solely for children. Sterling attributes this to the way art forms directed towards young people are often subjected to a second class status. “All the way back, even to the 1600s, puppetry was an itinerant art form,” says Sterling trying to set the record straight. “People would go from town to town, and entertain, but also raise issues about what was happening in political life at the same time.”
Little Amal is not the first push in recent history to bring activism to the forefront of puppetry. Sterling recalls the start of Bread and Puppet theater in the 1960s, which aimed to bring awareness to issues at the time, such as the Vietnam War.
As a puppetry educator, Sterling has similarly worked over the past several decades to use puppets to help people understand social issues with storytelling. “I worked with a group of ninth and twelfth graders at a school in New York, and we made a puppet for the salute to Israel parade,” she says.
But before she lets students start work on a puppet they have to write a paper on the significance of what they are creating, so they understand the impact they are making. In her own work as a puppeteer she’s worked in twelve different countries and created puppets including one in Uganda of the first president, or another in India of Mother Teresa.
Making it Work
Little Amal initially came from the Handspring Puppet company in South Africa. Crafting her took dozens people in collaboration working on different aspects of how this giant puppet would work. Little Amal was brought to life here in New York with the help of St. Anne’s Warehouse. The arts institution has spent the last 40 years focusing on innovative projects with a special focus on social and political issues.
Little Amal has a team of 21 people from all over the world, including places like Palestine, Ethiopia and South Africa. This includes puppeteers, coordinators, managers and more. And that’s just her daily team: St. Anne’s has double the staff who worked to bring Little Amal here and oversee the project. It takes three puppeteers at a time to control Little Amal: two for the hands and one inside her latticed torso. Over half the team is made up of puppeteers who switch off controlling her.
Little Amal is making several appearances a day throughout New York. She started her walk on September 14 by traveling through Queens and visiting places of cultural significance. She will be here until October 2 taking part in events that include meeting with the NYC Council Women’s Caucus and chasing pigeons through Central Park.
On September 15, Amal visited the New York Public Library at Bryant Square, as performers showed her fluttering books. Upon arriving at the library she was told it was a safe space, and the performance included signs that said “All children need a safe place to dream.”
The crowd gathered around her, hoping for a photo or that she would interact with them. “So great to see her from inside,” says Yukari Osaka, a puppeteer from Japan who was off duty at the time. Osaka originally worked with Little Amal in Marseille, where she was a dancer for one of her performances. But she only started puppeteering three weeks ago.
One of Osaka’s favorite experiences with Little Amal is interacting with kids: “Everywhere she goes, there’s a beautiful moment especially with kids, we can see a natural reaction of kids being surprised by her.”
Many in attendance brought their children along to see Amal share her story. “I took the opportunity to bring my son here to inform him and let him know about refugee children,” said Anneris Fernandez. She works in a public school and heard about Little Amal from a security guard there. “It opens up a conversation with my six year old about what what it feels like to be a refugee and be scared to leave the country that you love.”