Brooklyn Boro

Little Amal visits Brooklyn, and residents fall in love

12-foot puppet of Syrian refugee child draws crowds

September 20, 2022 Mary Frost
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Little Amal, a 12-foot-tall, lifelike puppet of a 10-year-old Syrian refugee girl, walked through the streets of Brooklyn on Monday, touching the hearts of thousands as she visited Coney Island, Brooklyn Public Library, BAM in Fort Greene and Brooklyn Bridge Park in DUMBO.

As she walked, Amal appeared as if she was searching her surroundings for a place to call home —  sometimes peering into second-story windows, sometimes leaning against traffic signs, looking weary. Hundreds of well-wishers greeted her at each stop and followed her, gaping and clapping as she traveled, accompanied by several unobtrusive puppeteers.

Little Amal has become an international sensation. Since July 2021, she has visited a dozen countries, symbolizing children fleeing disasters, violence and persecution.

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Stuyvesant Heights resident Tunisia Rawles came to The Plaza at 300 Ashland Pl. to celebrate Little Amal’s arrival. (This stop was sponsored by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Two Trees and the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership.) Hearing Little Amal’s refugee story made tears come to her eyes, she said.

We just forget about how children are separated from their parents. I imagined myself at the age of 10, being hysterical if that ever happened to me. I wouldn’t know where to go, what to do.” Rawles said Amal is “a reminder to not forget about the people who are displaced. It’s more than just a puppet, it’s the whole symbolism, and you can’t help but feel moved. It makes me want to be a better person. We are all trying to help Amal, and we should be helping others as well.” Rawles said she would be “camped out” at the Billie Holiday Theater for Little Amal’s visit on Thursday.

Former US Representative Elizabeth Hottzman wrote the country’s refugee law with Senator Ted Kennedy. “We said America has to go on record as saying that refugees are welcome here,” Holtzman told the Brooklyn Eagle.
Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

I’m here for three reasons,” former US Representative Elizabeth Hottzman told the Eagle before she spoke at the event at BAM. “One, my mom was a refugee. This country provided sanctuary and I’m here today because of that. And I don’t want the door shut for others. Two, with Senator Ted Kennedy, I wrote the refugee law. Because we said America has to go on record as saying that refugees are welcome here. Number three, I know what contribution refugees have made to this country and I want the American people to open their hearts.”

One of the biggest public art projects in NYC’s history

Little Amal comes to New York City as a project called Little Amal Walks NYC, co-produced by DUMBO’s St. Ann’s Warehouse and The Walk Productions. It is one of the biggest public art projects in the city’s history, with 55 events planned through October.

Little Amal was designed by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa. Her personality is modeled on a child refugee depicted in the theatrical production The Jungle, written by Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy. The play’s characters are based on real displaced persons in a French refugee camp. St. Ann’s Warehouse brought the production to Brooklyn (before Covid closed theaters); reviews called the work “thrilling,” “ravishing” and “a significant event.” St. Ann’s will be bringing back The Jungle, in February 2023.

We knew Amal as our little girl character representing all children in The Jungle production about a refugee camp in Calais, France,” Susan Feldman, St. Ann’s Warehouse artistic director, told the Brooklyn Eagle. “When I heard about Little Amal’s walk and saw her in Paris and London, I knew we had to bring her to New York. I felt we needed her here in this country to remind us to be kind and welcoming to people in need, especially children.”

Another parent hoists her daughter into the air to be closer to Little Amal. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller

So many stories across Brooklyn

Yazmany Arboleda is the creative producer of the New York visit, working with Amir Nizar Zuabi, artistic director of The Walk Productions.

There are so many current issues with immigration and belonging that we are dealing with here,” Arboleda told the Eagle. “There areso many stories from Bed-Stuy to Coney Island to Bay Ridge. That means that in every neighborhood across Brooklyn there’s going to be stories that are brought to life theatrically that are important, that are uplifting for all of us to learn along with Amal.

I was myself displaced by violence when I was 11 years old and my father was assassinated in Colombia,” Arboleda said.So when I think about this work, it’s very personal. More than half of the world’s refugees and immigrants are children under the age of 18 and all of those people are seeking a home, a place to belong, a place to live. How do we take care of each other in this moment when so much is changing?”

Composer Sxip Shirey created the music for the theatrical event with SWOON and St. Ann’s Warehouse, at Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn Bridge Park on Monday night.
Photo” Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Events at each stop

Musical, cultural and theatrical events take place at each stop Amal makes in New York. At Brooklyn Public Library’s Central branch on Monday, for example, Amal heard the story of ‘Julián Is A Mermaid’ read by author Jessica Love, in collaboration with Drag Story Hour NYC and National Queer Theater.

Students from the Mark Morris Dance Group, Syrian-American hip-hop artist and peace activist Omar Offendum and others performed at The Plaza at 300 Ashland Pl. (Some of the performances were interrupted by a quickly moving storm which blew down media tents, but Little Amal still made her appearance.)

The artist SWOON (Caledonia Curry), composer Sxip Shirey and St. Ann’s Warehouse created a mesmerizing theatrical event at Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn Bridge Park on Monday night.

It’s an honor to get to compose music for Little Amal,” Shirey told the Eagle. “And she feels real, and she is real. I’m composing music for SWOON, who’s one of my favorite living visual artists, and these characters that have been interacting with Little Amal are part of her film. And the film is really intense and beautiful and heavy also, so it’s kind of like a beautiful meeting of mythical characters that are real characters, too.”

“The impact of Little Amal’s journey shows the importance of the arts to conversations and advocacy for immigrants and refugees,” said Kate Gavriel, Two Trees Director of Cultural Affairs. “Two Trees is grateful to support our longtime partners St. Ann’s Warehouse in bringing Little Amal to New York City and honored that the Plaza at 300 Ashland and Jane’s Carousel could host her on her walk. We’re thrilled to see so many of Brooklyn’s artists join civic leaders and community groups to welcome her and share their own stories of migration, reminding us of the diversity of the immigrant experience and bringing awareness to the often overlooked experience of the refugee child.”

A mother hoists her daughter onto her shoulders so she can reach out and touch Little Amal. The children were enthralled by her lifelike movements. and emotional body language. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller

Why they came to see her

I was so interested when I received a newspaper article from the St Ann’s Warehouse,” said Brooklyn resident Kelly Walker. “I was very impressed because it reaches so many people through a diverse, artistic presentation. I’m so glad that she tries to cover all the boroughs and tries to reach out to so many people.”

I’ve been following Little Amal for a while now, and I think it’s a very meaningful story, especially under these circumstances that we are at in the world right now,” said Isidora, who lives in Ditmas Park but is originally from Chile. “So it’s very powerful, and I think bringing her to New York to a place that is so diverse sends a very strong message to our community.” Isidora babysits 10-year-old Stella, who she called “very smart” for her age. They were both at the BAM event.

I’m really excited to see it,” Stella said.

My mom lives in Berkeley, but but she keeps up with cultural events, so somewhat embarrassingly, she’s the one who told me about it,” said Gabe, a Greenpoint resident who rode his bike to Ashland Place to attend the BAM event. “I heard that Saint Ann’s was involved and they always put on really good programming, so that kind of sealed it for me.”

Janine Bitencourt, a Brazilian writer who has lived in Brooklyn for three months, said she read about Little Amal in the New York Times. “It’s amazing,” she said. Bitencourt recommended that people support Eat Offbeat at the Chelsea Market, where immigrant chefs prepare home-cooked meals.

Mom Elizabeth Jordan brought her youngsters Theo and Vivienne to see Little Amal at BAM. “We heard about this project and saw the beautiful puppet, and thought it was a great opportunity to introduce her story to our kids,” Jordan said.  

Tony Morales and his wife Santa Morales said they loved the shows that BAM puts on at the Plaza on Ashland Place. “I have loved art my whole life, so it’s a beautiful experience and it’s an honor to be here to be exposed,” Santa said. “And it’s right my home,” Tony said. The couple has been married for 50 years. “Born and raised in Brooklyn,” said Santa.

I followed her through her Europe walk and so I was really excited to hear she was coming to New York,” said Maya, who came to DUMBO with her friend Susha to see Little Amal. “We are both immigrants,” Maya said. “New York City is a city of immigrants. I came from Israel when I was five and Susha came from Russia.” They both live in Brooklyn now, she said.

The first time I heard about it was through Greenwood Cemetery, because I’m a supporter of them and they posted about it a while back,” said Greta Mansour, a Park Slope resident. “And then I started seeing all of these posts on social media, so I’m really glad that it’s getting a lot of awareness and a lot of following. The plight of refugees is devastating, whether from Syria or Ukraine or anywhere.” She added, “I didn’t know that the artist SWOON made the puppet and I’m a fan of SWOON. There’s so much about this I didn’t realize.”

To see where Little Amal is visiting next, visit walkwithamal.org

The following slideshow of photos is by Beth Eisgrau-Heller:

A puppeteer uses a long pole to manipulate Amal’s left hand to keep her hair from blowing into the face of the puppeteer operating her legs from inside the twelve foot tall Amal. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
The children in the crowd were enthralled by Amal and interacted with her as if she were a real girl. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
This spectator was definitely NOT “superdry” after the storm blew through Downtown Brooklyn. But nothing could contain his glee after Little Amal’s visit. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
Little Amal waves goodbye to her adoring fans for now. She will make another appearance in DUMBO later that evening. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
Oh, Happy Day! A soloist from the uplifting Harlem Sings gospel choir belts towards the heavens. Moments later, torrential rain fell on Downtown Brooklyn forcing many spectators to seek shelter under BAM’s awning. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
Little Amal makes her way through the crowd to say hello to some children patiently waiting to shake her hand. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
Little Amal arrives at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and is greeted by members of the Mark Morris Dance Group and eager spectators. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
A puppeteer uses a long pole to manipulate Amal’s left hand to keep her hair from blowing into the face of the puppeteer inside the twelve-foot tall Amal. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
A young girl hands Little Amal a “Welcome Amal.” Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
Little Amal bows to thank the young girl for welcoming her to Dumbo. Amal then turned and posed for a photo holding up the sign as the crowd photographed her at the intersection of Washington and Front, “the most instagrammed location in the world.” Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
Amal gazes in wonderment at Jane’s Carousel as it spins and sparkles within its glass enclosure. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
Amal is not sure what to make of the sights and sounds of Jane’s Carousel and tentatively peeks inside. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
Little Amal emerged from her carousel ride a bit dizzy. She is greeted by a mysterious new friend and invited to play Swoon’s “Nowhere to Sleep.” The piece was created in conjunction with St. Ann’s Warehouse and composer Sxip Shirley. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
Wondrous and whimsical creations by the Street Artist, Swoon perform and present Little Amal with a lantern to light her way as she navigates her new home in America. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
A performer presents a magical lantern to the crowd. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
A young member of the crowd collects small “fairy lights” that were spilled on the ground by the performers. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
Prospect Heights resident Tunisia Rawles came to see Little Amal at both The Brooklyn Academy of Music and in DUMBO. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
Cara Lee Sparry brought Litte Amal an umbrella in case of rain. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
Little Amal arrives at the Pearl Street Triangle and embarks on her journey toward Jane’s Carousel. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
An eager crowd, cameras at the ready, waits in anticipation as Little Amal makes her way toward the Pearl Street Triangle. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
A cascade of kaleidoscopic colors reflects off of the walls of the Manhattan Bridge Archway, piquing Little Amal’s curiosity. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
Little Amal officially arrives in DUMBO as she happens upon the sign in the Manhattan Bridge Archway. She is captivated by the changing colors. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
The loud overhead rumbling of the subway train crossing the Manhattan Bridge gave Little Amal pause. A moment later she covered her ears with her hands. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller
Little Amal reaches the steps of Jane’s Carousel with a large crowd in tow. They have followed her through the streets from the Pearl Street Triangle. Like tourists, Little Amal was taken aback by NYC’s twinkling skyline and paused to take in the sights, just as a real girl would. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller

 


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