Yesterday, Little Amal finally made it to COP26 in Glasgow, just in time to lead a plenary session with Samoan activist Brianna Fruean on Gender Day. Little Amal arrived on foot, which is fitting for a giant puppet depicting a nine-year-old Syrian refugee. Like many refugees, the puppet traveled a long way — 4,970 miles after leaving Gaziantep, Turkey, on July 27. Gaziantep is near the Syrian border.
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The Handspring Puppet Company created Little Amal, whose name means “hope” in Arabic. The Capetown-based puppeteers wanted to raise awareness about the problems of unaccompanied refugee children. Little Amal’s backstory is that her mother went out to find them food one day but never came back.
Operating the 11-foot-tall puppet is a complex operation. One puppeteer is inside Amal’s frame, walking on stilts and operating strings that control the refugee girl’s facial expressions. Three more puppeteers — one for each arm and another to support the puppet’s back — round out the team.
“We are artists, so we create emotion, empathy, to try and make things change,” said Claire Bejanin, who was responsible for Amal’s journey through France, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium, as reported by Reuters.
Giant puppets entered the political arena in the 1960s. In 1963, New York City’s Bread and Puppet Theater took on landlords, police and the Vietnam War. The idea of using protest puppets large and small caught on and spread to other places, from the San Diego Puppet Insurgency confronting border issues to Brooklyn’s Great Small Works standing up for Black lives. Peter Schumann, founder of Bread and Puppet Theater, has written that since puppets aren’t taken seriously, they work well as lowbrow vehicles for political performance.
At the Gender Day plenary, Amal and Fruean exchanged gifts. The Samoan activist gave Amal a flower to represent light and hope. The Syrian refugee puppet gave Fruean a bag of seeds. Alok Sharma, president of the climate talks, stated that climate and gender are “profoundly intertwined” and acknowledged that climate change disproportionately affects women and girls.
Nine-year-old Alicia Minardi was visiting the protest site with her school class. “I’m happy and sad,” she said, as reported by Reuters. “Happy because for me and my classmates, everything is great, but I’m sad because there are a lot of children for whom it’s very hard to live like this.”
Lead image via Walk with Amal