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Larger-than-life refugee puppet pursues journey

Christine Lehnen
November 19, 2021

A giant puppet of a young refugee girl is part of "The Walk," an art initiative that traveled 8,000 kilometers in support of refugees. She is now a special guest at the Open Festival in the Netherlands.

Little Amal, a huge puppet shakes a woman's hand
Smiles everywhere: Little Amal in the NetherlandsImage: Phil Nijhuis/ANP/picture alliance / ANP

Little Amal looks back at a long journey: Trying to find her mother, who set out in search of some food and never returned, she traveled 8,000 kilometers (about 5,000 miles). 

But Amal — Arabic for "hope" — is no ordinary girl: She is a 3.5-meter-tall (nearly 12-foot-tall) puppet, and the central and sole character of a theater project called "The Walk," which kicked off in Gaziantep, Turkey, near the Syrian border, and ended in Manchester in the UK, traveling through eight European countries, including Germany, from July to November.

But following The Walk, she pursued her journey with a stop at the climate conference in Glasgow and is now visiting The Hague from November 15 to 21, as a special guest at the Open Festival, organized by The Hague's new cultural palace, Amare.


Huge puppet surrounded by a crowd, shaking  a man's hand
In Folkstone, UK, actor Jude Law shook the puppet's handImage: Glyn KIRK/AFP

Little Amal's ambitious trek embodied an urgent message: "Don't forget about us." Organized by the British Good Chance theater company, it aimed to draw attention to all displaced children, many separated from their families, whose plight has been overshadowed by the COVID pandemic.

A unique art initiative

"It's precisely because the world is now looking at other issues that it's so important to bring the refugee crisis back into focus," stressed Amir Nizar Zuabi, the initiative's artistic director. He said the goal is to highlight "the potential of refugees" rather than just their "dire circumstances."

On its website, the initiative calls the art action "one of the most innovative and adventurous public art works ever undertaken," with the puppeteers including former refugees. 

Jan Zoet, who heads the Amare cultural center in The Hague, described Amal's invitation as a "request to give young refugees hope and a future."

Just like in the cities she stopped in during The Walk, Amal's stay in The Hague is accompanied by a six-day cultural program. In The Hague, she visited the miniature city of Madurodam, a tourist attraction with miniatures of the most important landmarks in the Netherlands.

Four puppeteers serve Little Amal

The larger-than-life puppet was built by the renowned South African Handspring Puppet Company. The company's founders, Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler even came out of retirement to create it. "The refugee story is the big issue of our time," says Kohler on "The Walk" website.

Huge puppet on stage with several people
A visitor at the climate conference in Glasgow, tooImage: Jane Barlow/Zuma/imago images

"At a time when theaters are still struggling to reopen their doors, a public art event like this can bring people back together."

It takes a total of four puppeteers to animate Little Amal: one for each arm, one for her back, and one actor inside her body, walking on stilts. The latter also operates "the harp," a complex system of strings that control the puppet's facial expressions.

Art brings people together

The Good Chance theater company was founded in 2015 in the refugee camp in Calais, which was then known as "The Jungle." Their first play, also called "The Jungle," was met with critical acclaim in London's most important theaters and in the West End.

Time and again, the artists involved emphasize that the goal is to help people connect. "Since our inception, we have emphasized the great importance of art in humanitarian crises," writes Naomi Webb, Good Chance's executive director on its website. "Art has the disarming ability to bring people together and tell human stories."

Huge doll surrounded by crowds, Eiffel Tower in the background
Little Amal drew crowds in Paris in mid-October Image: Vincent Isore/IP3press/imago images

What is so special about large puppets like Little Amal is their ability to bring people together, Fabien Seewald of the German Dundu puppet company told DW in a phone interview. "With Dundu, for example, we also performed in Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2013. There, with our large puppets, we created a situation of shared childlike wonder that momentarily bridged the differences among people and the borders in their minds and made it possible to experience what they have in common," he said.

That is what Amal is currently doing in The Hague, just as the puppet did on the many other stops on its journey, where the Dundu Company welcomed it in the German city of Stuttgart — one of the three German strongholds of large-scale puppetry, along with Bochum and Berlin, Seewald said.

"The greatest 'aha' moment occurs when you give people the opportunity to lead the puppet themselves. Then they create something together. That's the magic of puppetry: bringing things to life together," says Seewald.


Update: First published at the beginning of 'The Walk' in July 2021, the article was updated on November 11, 2021. It was translated from German.