Little Amal visits the Big Apple on her trip around the world

New York is a city where wonderful, sad and strange things are happening all the time, most of which go unnoticed by the millions of people who live here.

Residents and visitors come and go, disappear when they leave, barely visible when they are there among the crowds.

Not so with Little Amal, a giant puppet of a 10-year-old Syrian girl, who has traveled the world in search of sanctuary.

In July last year, she left Gaziantep in Turkey, which is now home to hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians. Since then, Amal, whose name means “hope” in Arabic, has traveled more than 9,000 km across 13 countries, representing all children fleeing war, violence and persecution.

She arrived in New York on September 14 and left on October 2, having traveled through the city’s five boroughs to bring attention to her message – don’t forget us.

I saw her in Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan, where she appeared for about 15 minutes one weeknight, to the astonishment of passers-by and the excitement of those who had deliberately come to see her.

There were fiddlers and singers and a festive atmosphere as Amal’s 12-foot frame, with a partially animatronic face, walked and swayed to the beat of the music, reaching out to touch people’s outstretched hands.

Little Amal walks through Grand Central Station in New York. Photo: AP Photo/Seth Wenig

I spoke to a little boy named James in the park, with his mother and his friends. They came specially to the park, having just missed his appearance at St. Patrick’s Cathedral earlier that week.

James explained that he had been very close to Amal as she swayed to the music and walked through the crowd.

“I love him. I’ve never seen a puppet that big. I’ve seen them in videos that big, but never in person.

I ask him to describe it.

“She has long hair with a bow and a layered skirt; it’s pink and red and purple. Her hair is brownish black and her skin color is a bit like mine.

His mother’s friend, Elisha, stands nearby:

“I love the post. It raises awareness of the refugee crisis around the world, and that’s important to me.”

Another friend, Marcy, agrees and points out that Amal is not a cartoon puppet; his expression is quite serious, which makes his message more effective.

“I had tears in my eyes. She’s not smiling. She’s absorbing everything.

“Sometimes when she closes her eyes, it seems like it becomes too much. She represents so many people. It was really moving.

It takes four puppeteers to bring Little Amal to life: one on each arm, one supporting her back, and one inside walking on stilts. This fourth puppeteer also controls “the harp,” an intricate tapestry of strings that animate Little Amal’s face, head, and eyes.

The puppeteers are right there, but you don’t notice them – Little Amal seems alive in its own right.

Sarah Johnson, a New Yorker, said she was struck by the difference in the experience, seeing Amal in person rather than on social media.

“I think something was imbued in her that it’s really easy to connect with.”

She was impressed with the turnout: “You get the feeling that people really wanted to be here for this fleeting moment; it’s not that long. I like that too; it is ephemeral and beautiful.

Symbolizing every person in motion

At a time when hundreds of refugees arrive in New York every week from the southern border, sent on buses from Texas, Little Amal symbolizes anyone on the move seeking safety.

Manuel Bagorrow was born in Zimbabwe and has traveled the world as a concert pianist. Watching Little Amal made him reflect on the difference between the ease with which he crosses borders and the impossibility for most refugees.

“I’ve been incredibly lucky in the way that I’ve moved around the world without any real issues or stress, but to have this embodiment of that very different kind of experience and an awareness of what it could mean to people. , it was beautiful to see.

Baivayle Malan, 21, moved to the city from Ivory Coast a year ago and echoed that sentiment.

“I think it’s amazing; I really like how nice people were to the puppet and the scene beyond the puppet, the diversity and the kindness. I asked him how seeing this scene unfold made New York feel to him, and how Amal’s reception compared to his.

New York is full of immigrants, but I think it’s because there’s an amazing situation beyond her that made people really welcome her.

He laughed, “Because when you’re in New York, people don’t really look at you — they’re living their life, you’re living your life!”

Raghida Dergham is a Lebanese journalist who lives between Beirut and New York.

She had heard of Little Amal but stumbled upon the event at Bryant Park and was deeply moved upon seeing her there.

“I really feel for Syrians. They went through a horrible time and are still going through a horrible time.

The Syrian refugee crisis remains the biggest displacement crisis in the world, with no end in sight. After more than a decade of conflict, nearly 5.7 million registered refugees – including nearly 2.7 million children – still live in camps, informal settlements and host communities in Egypt, Iraq, in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

The Lebanese people now have their own struggles, with economic collapse and political corruption, but they still host more than half a million Syrian children.

Ms Dergham continued: “The fact that it is a young girl means a lot to me, especially at a time when we are witnessing what is happening in Iran against women.

“To me, it’s representative of the great struggle that women and girls are having in this part of the world, and to see the symbol here in Bryant Park is truly impressive.”

Seeing New Yorkers embrace Little Amal was encouraging and important.

One in three of us are immigrants ourselves, and with new refugees arriving every day, it’s vital to keep that humanity and energy in store, for the very real people it represents.

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