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Volume 51 Number 25, November 13, 2021 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Defend the Rights of All against State Racism!

Creative Initiative to Demand that the Rights of Refugees are Respected

Written by: Frances Webber


Little Amal, the 12-foot puppet of the young Syrian refugee in Folkstone.

Little Amal, the 12-foot puppet of the young Syrian refugee, has in The Walk taken the story of refugee journeys across Europe, from south-east Turkey to Manchester, by way of Greece, Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany and Belgium. In the cities and towns she has passed through, from July when she set off from Gaziantep to November 3, when she arrived in Manchester, she has been greeted by thousands of people, in events co-ordinated with hundreds of local creative, artistic and refugee groups. She was welcomed by the Pope and by mayors and dignitaries, but mostly by large crowds of local people, some themselves former refugees. Preparations for her welcome have often involved local schools, with children learning songs of welcome, making flowers such as Damascus roses from plastic bags, and sometimes learning to ask questions like: "Why can't refugees get on planes and boats? Why do they have to walk?"

The idea for Little Amal, a production of the Good Chance Theatre Company, came from the company's earlier production "The Jungle". In 2015, Good Chance had built its first theatre in the Calais Jungle as a space for residents' and visitors' creativity and as respite from the harsh living conditions. The play "The Jungle", commissioned by the National Theatre and staged at the Young Vic and then the West End and on to the US, told the stories of some of those stuck there, with actors who had themselves made the journey and had been granted asylum. One of the characters in the play was a young Syrian girl, Amal (whose name means Hope). Thousands of young refugees have made the arduous and frightening journey across Europe, and the company decided to have Amal do it, producer David Lan said, "to take the experience of people who are quite brutally marginalised and put it in the centre", for people to "imagine what it would be like to be her". To make her visible, they made her big: t he Handspring Puppet company, makers of the War Horse puppets, made Little Amal, the girl whose Aleppo home was destroyed and who is looking for her mother, who she believes is in Manchester.

Amal was not welcomed everywhere: far-right protesters in Greece pelted the puppet with stones; local councillors in northern Greece refused entry to a monastery village for the "Muslim puppet"; and the right-wing mayor of Calais objected to her presence. But hostility was confined to a small minority.

The Walk celebrates resilience, courage, creativity and humanity. It does not purport to be political. But it has become political in the sense that what it is built around - refugees' odysseys across Europe, and the networks of solidarity that have grown up to support them - have increasingly been criminalised. It is bitterly ironic that in Greece, the coastguards welcoming Amal with a fanfare perform violent pushbacks of refugees into Turkish waters, and those acting in solidarity with refugees, like Seán Binder and Sara Mardini, are prosecuted. Binder and Mardini face trial on November 18 on charges related to their rescue and first-responder activities on Lesvos.

At an Oxford reception, Lan expressed the hope that the 8,000km marathon of street theatre would "change the weather" for refugees in Europe. In its spectacle, the delight it brought to many thousands and the connections it made between artists, refugees, local schools and communities across the continent, such a hope does not seem unrealistic.

(Institute of Race Relations, November 4, 2021)


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