Giant refugee puppet to walk from Syria to UK

A giant puppet of a nine-year-old refugee girl will travel 4,971 miles (8,000km) from the Turkey-Syria border through Europe to the UK in what is being billed as one of the most ambitious public artworks ever attempted.

The Good Chance team behind The Jungle, the celebrated dramatisation of refugee life in Calais, is teaming up with the creators of the War Horse puppets to present an adventurous work that will last from April to July next year.

The Walk aims to dramatise the stories of refugee children by means of a 3.5-metre-high puppet, Little Amal, who will travel from the Syrian border through Turkey, Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and France in search of her mother.

More than 70 towns, villages and cities will welcome Little Amal with art, from major street parties and city performances to more intimate community events.

In July, Little Amal will arrive at the Manchester international festival where she will be the centrepiece of a large-scale participatory event.

The production team includes the director Stephen Daldry, who said it would be a “travelling festival of art and hope” and the “most ambitious public art event” ever attempted.

He said: “Little Amal’s story transcends borders and language to highlight the challenges that refugee children face. But she is also a figure of great hope.”

Events will be mostly outdoors and therefore Covid-safe, said the project’s artistic director, Amir Nizar Zuabi, with a plan A and a plan B, and often a plan C, at each venue.

Zuabi said the purpose of The Walk was to highlight refugees’ potential, not only their dire plight.

He said: “The attention of the world is elsewhere right now which makes it more important than ever to reignite the conversation about the refugee crisis and to change the narrative around it. Yes, refugees need food and blankets, but they also need dignity and a voice.”

Events will be different at each stage of the journey. In Rome, for example, Amal will walk through paintings projected on to local buildings of bombarded houses by the Syrian artist Tammam Azzam. In Paris, an outdoor installation of a refugee camp will be created.

The puppet will enter the UK via Folkestone and celebrate her 10th birthday in London before making her way to the conclusion of her journey in Manchester.

The dozens of UK organisations supporting the project include the National Theatre, the Royal Opera House, Sadler’s Wells, Canterbury Cathedral and the Shubbak festival.

Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, the founders of the Cape Town-based Handspring Puppet Company, came out of retirement to help create and build Little Amal.

Kohler said they were asked to create a low-tech puppet so they came up with a girl who essentially moves like a stilt-walker operated by three people, one inside and two moving her arms. A small computer operates her eyes.

Three versions of Little Amal have been created with her body made from moulded cane and her head, arms and legs made from carbon fibre. A team of about a dozen puppet operators will alternate over the course of the journey.

Jones said: “We are doing something unprecedented. It’s part of the reason why we came out of retirement and took on this project. It’s such an important thing to do, such an exciting challenge.”