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 every year, this one appeared tired and anxious as she peered around the arrivals board and made her way through the terminal. Unlike other travelers, she was 12 feet tall and 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. Syria’s civil war has been going on for nearly 12 years, causing many people to flee for their safety. Amal is meant to represent refugees from her country and so many others, many of whom are children.
Amal walked for the first time in 2021, across 12 countries. Now she is visiting all five boroughs of New York City during a 17-day tour. It’s a collaboration that includes the Walk Productions and a local performance space, St. Ann’s Warehouse.
At JFK, her walk was accompanied by a haunting and somber excerpt from the opera “Satyagraha,” by composer Philip Glass. The music was played by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and sung by 23 members of its children’s chorus.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Metropolitan’s music director, conducted the piece. He says he chose it because it reflects “the feeling of loneliness and rejection of wandering around the world.” But he says the piece also offers a sense of hope, which he wanted to be conveyed by Amal’s peers in the chorus.
Members of the chorus said they were aware of Amal before the day’s event as well as some of the struggles that refugees endure.
Marcus Agrippa, a ninth-grader at Brooklyn Friends School who uses they/them pronouns, said they had learned about the plight of refugees in class. “We talked about people having to flee or hide from all the stuff that’s happening around them, and I thought it was really cool that they decided to [show] it in puppet form.”
Jesse Rambler, 11, spoke about how unfair it is for kids to have to leave their homes.
“It’s just really unfortunate … because they’re forced 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 some other event that happened in their home country. ... They’re just unlucky and they have to separate from their family when they shouldn’t.”
Umayma Ben Amor, 11, speaks Arabic — Syria’s official language — and feels a special connection to Amal.
“I know her name means ‘Little Hope,’ ” she said. Umayma learned of the puppet on the Walk With Amal website (walkwithamal.org) and about another Syrian refugee family in the book “Other Words for Home,” by Jasmine Warga.
The sixth-grader at the German International School New York said Amal helps people understand “how hard it is to flee from their country, and to lose their family and friends.” She was also shocked at how tall Amal is.
Andrea Wang, a sophomore at Stuyvesant High School, was impressed with the performance of the puppeteers — each arm controlled by a different person; a third puppeteer inside her body, controlling the rest of her movements; and a fourth directs them through earpieces. “They made it real. I could see they captured a child’s innocence and her curiosity,” she said.
Chorus members said they were looking forward to following the rest of Amal’s journey, which will include events at city landmarks and community gathering places. They were also happy to be part of her first moments in New York.
“I just want to raise awareness of these people that are suffering and have to go through these hard times,” Andrea said.
In an earlier version of this story, a student at the German International School New York was identified incorrectly as Umayma Ben Agrippa. Her name is Umayma Ben Amor. This story has been updated.
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