“What city, friends, is this?”- The 12-foot-tall puppet of a Syrian refugee child came to Chicago in search of welcome.
The crowd’s quiet anticipation suddenly broke into a wave of exhilaration as the 12-foot-tall puppet came cautiously creeping down the Navy Pier sidewalk toward the city that had long awaited her arrival.
Little Amal, the cane figurine of a 10-year-old Syrian refugee girl, came to Chicago on a quest for a community to welcome her. As she made her way toward the distant skyscrapers, the crowd at Navy Pier quite literally welcomed her with open arms. Spectators held their palms out to touch Amal’s hands, children sat on the shoulders of parents reaching up to get the puppet’s attention, and families shuffled through the crowd to snap photos of the scene.
The mass of attendants didn’t jostle or swarm – they simply guided Amal along her initial steps into the city with a radiant joy, as if greeting an old friend. Four puppeteers were also working together to seamlessly operate Amal’s life-like movements and expressions – tentative and wary, but curious.
Amal’s journey doesn’t just begin and end with Chicago.
The puppet has been journeying the globe since 2021, bringing recognition to the world’s perpetually growing refugee crisis. As she discovers new cities, Little Amal is also raising funds for refugee youths through the Amal Fund.
From September through November of this year, Little Amal is embarking on The Walk across the United States. Visiting both major cities and less-populated areas, she will attend events that are characteristic of those individual locations and communities within them. The Walk is one of the largest free public festivals in history.
While in Chicago, Amal attended several events that were sponsored and hosted by different Chicago-based organizations. The Chicago Refugee Coalition (CRC) was one of those sponsors.
“For the Chicago Refugee Coalition in particular, our mission is at the heart of why we had to be an official sponsor,” Jamia Jowers, president of the board of directors of CRC, said. “We provide innovative, dignity-centered relief for refugees in the Chicago area, and that encompasses everything that Little Amal or The Walk across America wanted to provide.”
The spirit of Little Amal and The Walk is something that tethers individuals from all communities and backgrounds to one commonality, and harnesses the power of that unity for the greater good.
“It is a celebration of art and hope,” Jowers said. “To unite communities and refocus attention on the urgent needs of refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers alike.”
Little Amal’s journey isn’t just grasping the attention of individuals and organizations that already live and work within the realm of refugee issues–the puppet is actively embracing people in the community that are otherwise unfamiliar with who and what Little Amal represents.
Chicago resident Lois LaGalle brought her grandkids to play at Maggie Daley park on the evening of September 30, serendipitously stumbling upon Little Amal’s farewell event.
“The whole refugee [crisis] is so intense,” LaGalle said. “And now we’re helping refugee families that are arriving in Chicago with nothing, so [Little Amal in Chicago] seems very apropos.”
Chicago proudly bears the title of a Sanctuary City, and thousands of migrants have entered the city in the last year just from the buses originating at the southern border alone. While this has posed significant challenges for the city, the many individuals and organizations working close to the crisis take heart in knowing Chicago’s legacy of welcome is continuing to be upheld.
“Chicago is a place where history has suggested that all people are welcome,” Jowers said. “And Chicago being a cultural center and a collection of neighborhoods really welcomes immigrant communities.”
This cultural diversity relevant in and between Chicago’s unique neighborhoods was justly represented in the events Little Amal attended.
“[Little Amal] is a representative of all refugees,” Jowers said. “So, she makes different cultural toys, she makes different cultural foods, she is doing artwork that [relates] to other countries… she really is picking up all cultures.”
As she travels the U.S. and the rest of the world, Little Amal draws inspiration and insight from community partners and local citizens rather than consistently relying on one small group of people to plan and coordinate events. Little Amal has a core team of people that follows her throughout her journey, but outside that group is a larger network of producers and partners that are more knowledgeable about different destinations.
“It’s all about what Little Amal is great at, it’s all about discovering what there is already and [bringing] that out in a community.” Alice Evans, Little Amal’s press liaison, said.
Little Amal is now moving on, making her way down to the southern U.S. border, eventually crossing into Mexico, but that doesn’t mean Chicago should move on as well.
“Little Amal [says], ‘Open your arms, get that organization and that community working all together,” Evans said. “So we hope that that is kept after Little Amal has left.”
Although the puppet herself has departed, continuing with her journey to ignite and inspire other cities, the team behind the project is hoping a legacy of unrestrained welcome and enthusiastic unification will endure in her wake.
Header photo by Varun Khushalani