“Amal is a nine-year-old girl, who will pass through your city. She is alone, afraid and vulnerable – how will you welcome her? What would you like to learn from her? And what would you teach her?” These are the questions asked by Artistic Director Amir Nizar Zuabi to the people in the villages and towns when Little Amal arrives on her 800 miles epic voyage across 25 countries. Her mission is to highlight the plight of millions of unaccompanied children forced to leave their countries in search of a safe haven.
There to meet her in Lewisham last Friday was Councillor Kevin Bonavia, Labour Cabinet Member for Democracy, Refugees & Accountability.
“It is a great honour, and a chance to celebrate refugees in our borough and thank people who have worked alongside our refugees to make us a genuine City of Sanctuary. We are committed to raise awareness to a wide population in Lewisham and show to everyone that there is an alternative to many of the narratives that are out there about a ‘wariness of the other’ which causes distrust and fear amongst the host population. We are very proud to be a place of sanctuary celebrating people who are fleeing from somewhere and looking for a place of sanctuary.”
The concept for The Walk was the brain child of theatre director Amir Nizar Zuabi, along with producers Stephen Daldry, David Lan, Tracey Seaward and Naomi Webb from The Good Chance Theatre Company and in association with Handspring Puppet, creators of the horse puppets in War Horse.
Amir was born in East Jerusalem to a Jewish mother and Palestinian father so the refugee experience runs deep in the DNA of his family. He stumbled into theatre at the age of 14 when he saw a show in east Jerusalem and fell in love with theatre. For him it was the opposite of his reality. They had no infrastructure but they had a desperate need and had lots to say. Theatre was their medium.
In 2015 at the height of the refugee crisis, Amir realised that he needed to create a new kind of theatre – to take the drama out of the theatre and into the streets – and this is from where The Walk emerged.
Little Amal, a nine-year-old Syrian girl is a 3.5-metre-high puppet. It took 25 people and 250 partners to help her across the borders of this extraordinary journey. Along this Walk of Pride, she visited camps where they created projects with some of the refugee children living there.
In Gaziantep on the Turkish border where The Walk started, the refugee children made lanterns to welcome Little Amal. On the coast in Turkey, Amal walked the beaches where shoes of refugee children had been abandoned before crossing the sea and where so many of them drowned in the attempt to find freedom. She was welcomed by the Vatican and shook hands with the Pope, and in Brussels children wrote letters to her helping them to understand the plight of these unaccompanied refugee children. But it has not all been positive. She has also encountered opposition. In Greece she met with protesters and in France, the Mayor of Calais objected to her presence. But the positives have far outweighed the negatives.
Amir said that he wanted to challenge people’s perceptions of refugees and asylum seekers and to talk about them not as a problem but about the potential and the cultural riches they bring to a host country.
“It is time that we now accept that we are living in a new age of refugees, which in turn means that we have a different perspective on how we accommodate them” said Amir during a recent Ted Talk. “We need to honour these children’s experience. There needs to be a new way of thinking about what it is to be a refugee in today’s world. I hope that the soft power of the Arts will change minds and I hope it will leave a curiosity towards the other.”
This is a sentiment that we at The Separated Child Foundation know only too well. We have worked with separated children since 2007.
“The journey of Little Amal echoes the journey of countless separated children escaping persecution and terror of an old-new kind. They are not accompanied by crowds who greet them and cheer them on their way. They are utterly alone. Their family life has been utterly torn apart and they have either lost their parents or they are lost to them, as they flee to safety. They are children of the world and we at ‘Separated Child’ believe they are entitled to our warm hearts and our open minds – a port not a fort” says Angela Gluck, one of the founders of The Separated Child Foundation.
Indeed, Amal in Arabic meets hope, and this is something to which these children cling. Hope that they will find security and a future in a place where they are not frightened, where they can lay their heads at night and sleep without anxiety and that they will have a future. And hope that they will be welcomed.
The Walk will terminate on Wednesday 3 November at 7pm in Manchester in a grand, free, large-scale outdoor event entitled When the Birds Land.