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Little Amal’s big journey

Amal’s journey encompasses the real tales of such young refugees, all around the world.

Atanu Biswas | New Delhi |

While little Amal in Tagore’s play ‘Dakghar’ was confined to his home due to a terminal illness, today’s Little Amal is uprooted from her home. She is a 3.5-metre-tall living artwork of a 9-year-old Syrian refugee girl from Aleppo, who is out on her epic journey termed as ‘The Walk’.

The journey, a depiction of an ambitious theatrical project, through an 8,000km path across Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, and the UK, between July 27 and November 3, travelling along the same route taken by refugees from the Syrian border to the UK for years, is to focus attention on the urgent needs of young refugees by embodying the message, “Don’t forget about us”.

The giant girl’s migrant trek provoked powerful responses across Europe, blended with love, affection, consciousness, and fear and hatred, of course. The epic walk of Little Amal began in Gaziantep at the Turkish border with Syria, where refugee children made lanterns to welcome her.

Thousands of children wrote letters to her in Brussels, a public mini-concert took place for the puppet at the Grand Théâtre de Genève in Geneva, and on her arrival in Britain, Amal was greeted by actor Jude Law in Folkestone. And, on October 24, a party took place at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to celebrate Little Amal’s 10th birthday, with children from across London in attendance and a birthday cake made by well-known chef Yotam Ottolenghi.

In Bari, Little Amal was greeted by a large puppet of an Italian Nonna (Great Grandmother) in Corso Vittorio Emanuele, a work in papier-mâché made by the papiermâché master of Putignano Domenico Galluzzi. The Great Grandmother shared with her wisdom for how to overcome the obstacles she might face on the rest of her journey.

While Amal was blessed by the Pope in the Vatican and experienced warmth, love and adoration in many other places in Europe, some people felt threatened by a puppet refugee. Don’t forget that when millions of refugees from Syria stormed Europe about five years ago, some countries were visibly afraid of them.

Five years on, protesters threw things at Amal as she walked through the streets in Greece, local councillors voted to ban her from visiting the monasteries of Meteora, and protests in Athens forced her route to be diverted. In France, the mayor of Calais raised objections to her presence. This incidence of Calais is particularly important as Amal – meaning ‘hope’ in Arabic – was developed from Good Chance Theatre’s awardwinning play, ‘The Jungle’, where Little Amal appeared as a character representing the hundreds of unaccompanied minors in the Calais camp who were separated from their families.

Following the success of The Jungle, Good Chance wanted to expand the reach of Little Amal’s appeal, and the story has become an odyssey of epic proportions as she has been brought to breath-taking life as a giant puppet made by War Horse creators Handspring Puppet Company of Cape Town. The puppet, of course, travelled through Europe legally! But why was Little Amal made so tall?

This is because her creators wanted the world to grow big enough to greet her. Little Amal’s colossal size is meant to inspire people to “think big and act bigger”. The purpose of the travelling circus of a little over three months of a little girl was to highlight the potential of refugees, not just their dire circumstances. She is described as “shining a light on the millions of displaced refugee children she represents.”

A 2016 ad video of ‘Save the Children’, titled “Still the Most Shocking Second a Day” – a follow-up to the multi-award winning 2014 viral hit “Most Shocking Second a Day” that was made with a mission to bring the plight of child refugees to the world’s attention – shocked Britain when it showed what it would be like if a war like that in Syria came to the UK and what life could be like if a British girl became a refugee and had to go to an unspecified location outside of her home country.

“I’m quite privileged,” said Lily-Rose Aslandogdu, the 13year-old British actor from Harlow who starred as the young refugee girl in the 2016 video. “Filming this made me realize how many things I take for granted like seeing my family everyday, having a good education and not worrying about leaving through the front door and something happening.”

In the largest refugee crisis since World War II, wars, conflicts, and persecution have forced about 60 million people to flee their homes worldwide and half of them are children, according to the United Nations. As per UNICEF’s data, more than 33 million children had been forcibly displaced by the end of 2020, including about 13 million child refugees and about one million asylum-seeking children, whereas an estimated 3.7 million child refugees live in camps or collective centres.

Amal’s journey encompasses the real tales of such young refugees, all around the world. And Little Amal immediately reminds us about another Odysseus journey of a real-life girl from Aleppo, Syria, who was born with cerebral palsy. Nujeen Mustafa was 16 in 2014. Her harrowing journey from war-ravaged Syria to Gaziantep in Turkey, and finally Germany – about 5,600 km – was in a wheelchair.

This breathtaking tale of fortitude, grit, and hope that lends a face to the greatest humanitarian issue of our time, the Syrian refugee crisis, is portrayed in Nujeen’s 2016 book ‘Nujeen: One Girl’s Incredible Journey from WarTorn Syria in a Wheelchair’, coauthored with journalist Christina Lamb. Incidentally, Lamb is the coauthor of other bestseller books including ‘I am Malala’.

Not all such desperate journeys, however, end in a peaceful shelter as in the cases of Nujeen or Malala! Little Amal could certainly intensify the awareness and stimulate discussions about the dire crisis concerning the global refugee issue. But, for the world to grow tall enough to greet Amal is not quite easy. Nobody is expecting that to happen overnight, for sure. In the finale, however, Amal successfully reunites with her mother in Manchester. Amal and Nujeen are rare exceptions, though.

(The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata)