A giant puppet comes to Pittsburgh, and, with it, recognition of child refugees

click to enlarge A giant puppet comes to Pittsburgh, and, with it, recognition of child refugees
Photo: Taku Kumabe/Courtesy of The Walk Productions
Little Amal

There’s an art to raising awareness for a cause, which is why some view creative channels as an effective way to call attention to anything of importance. There are times when art meets us where we are and urges us to consider issues that would otherwise go unnoticed in the hustle of everyday life and the ephemeral 24-hour news cycle.

From Wed., Sept. 20 to Thu., Sept. 21, a public performance art project called The Walk meets us in Pittsburgh and asks us to join Little Amal, a 12-foot tall puppet, for a walk across the city in consideration of refugees, immigrants, and human rights.

Little Amal represents a 10-year-old Syrian refugee who lost her family to the war that has raged in the country for over a decade, and is looking for a safe place to exist. Despite the figure’s colossal stature, there’s a gentleness that invites not only approach, but also care. This can be credited to Little Amal’s designers and fabricators, the Handspring Puppet Company, most known for their life-size horse puppets featured in the Tony Award-winning play War Horse.

The puppet takes four people to operate and is designed to withstand lengthy expeditions over variable terrain in fluctuating weather.

Debuted in July 2021, Little Amal has already traveled more than 6,000 miles across 15 countries and has been welcomed by millions of people. This year’s journey across the United States makes stops at over 35 cities between Boston and San Diego, and, along the way, includes more than 100 welcome events coordinated with over 1,000 artists and arts organizations.

Included in the Pittsburgh events is a naturalization ceremony for Little Amal at the City-County Building, a visit to the Carrie Blast Furnaces, and a musical walk through the streets of Downtown, as well as chances for kids to interact with Little Amal in Wilkinsburg and the North Side.

People can attend any of the free events or simply walk alongside Little Amal in an act of solidarity.

In a press release, Nizar Zuabi, artistic director for The Walk Productions, which organized the nationwide event, says, “Anyone who has entered a foreign world knows the power of a warm welcome. We’re thankful to our hundreds of cultural partners who have thoughtfully organized events of welcome for Amal, allowing this young girl to learn about her new home and make new friends along the way. We invite Americans from every corner of the country to join us in not only welcoming Amal, but also empathizing with the millions of other migrants who have bravely entered this country in search of a better future.”

click to enlarge A giant puppet comes to Pittsburgh, and, with it, recognition of child refugees
Photo: David Levene/Courtesy of The Walk Productions
Little Amal with the puppet from War Horse

A number of local arts and cultural organizations, city officials, and nonprofits, including the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, Casey Droege Cultural Productions, the Office for Public Art, and Hello Neighbor helped create welcome events.

Also involved is Jewish Family & Community Services, which runs a program aimed at helping refugees and immigrants resettle in Pittsburgh. Ivonne Smith-Tapia serves as the director of Refugee & Immigrant Services at JFCS, and says she hopes that, along with awareness, Little Amal changes some of the narrative around the people with which her organization works.

“For non-immigrants and non-refugees, when we talk about this topic and we think of refugees and immigrants, most of the time, it’s from a deficit perspective, from a negative perspective, from a ‘they need more support, they need more help, they are vulnerable, they don’t know the language,’ which, in many cases, that’s true,” says Smith-Tapia. “But there aren’t that many opportunities where we can get together … to celebrate the strength of refugee children, the resiliency of refugee and immigrant children, that have the same hopes and goals of non-refugee and non-immigrant kids.”

She also sees the Little Amal visit and adjacent events as a “good opportunity for all the immigrant and refugee kids to feel represented and feel visible.”

“Hopefully it's going to be a positive experience for many of us, and we see her visit as joyful and hopeful,” she adds. “We can create a community that recognizes and celebrates refugee and immigrant kids and their families.”

The Walk with Little Amal. Event times vary. Wed., Sept. 20-Thu., Sept. 21. Various locations. Free. walkwithamal.org