Throughout her journey, the 9-year-old Syrian refugee girl-puppet was greeted by both loving crowds and anti-migrant protesters.
A huge crowd gathers outside the National Theatre in London’s Southbank. Children run around during the last moments of daylight. A choir stands ready. They are waiting for Amal. Heads turn and people point, as a giant puppet rounds the corner. As she walks into the courtyard, a solo voice sings out her name. The audience is silent.
Amal tentatively explores the crowd, peering into the faces in front of her. She bends down to touch a child’s hand, and an elderly woman appears to give her words of heartfelt comfort. The mood is electric. When Amal finally leaves the National Theater, the crowd follows her across Waterloo Bridge, accompanying her as she continues to her next destination.
She might just be a puppet, but Amal represents something very real. She embodies a nine-year-old Syrian refugee, who has taken the same journey as many unaccompanied minors across Europe. Her name is Arabic for “hope.” Amal started her journey on the Turkey-Syria border, kicking off Good Chance and Handspring Puppet Company’s travelling festival, The Walk, and journeying 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles) to find a home in Manchester, UK.
We were all invited to join Amal as she traveled across Turkey, Greece, and Italy, where she was met with both love and hostility. Amal has finally arrived in the UK, just as its government is proposing potentially hugely consequential changes to its immigration system, changes which could actually land those making dangerous journeys like Amal’s in jail.
Thankfully for Amal, as she made her final steps across Europe, she was welcomed and given a home. Will the same be true for real migrant children?
Amal’s next steps in Europe
As Amal left Italy, to begin the final leg of her journey, she took her first steps through south-eastern France and into Switzerland. In Geneva, she played in the fountains outside the United Nations Office, and placed her hand on The Broken Chair, a 12-metre sculpture of a seat with a snapped leg, designed to raise awareness of the victims of landmines. There were many such poignant moments during The Walk.
“The fact that this journey is based on a real route that many thousands of children have walked, and some have lost their life on, means that we are entrusted with a great responsibility to represent their stories in an honest and complicated way, showing the hardship but also the beauty of their journeys,” Amir Nizar Zuabi, artistic director of The Walk and Good Chance, told me.
“We take this responsibility very seriously, because we know that as big as Amal is, so is the impact of her journey.”
Amal moved on from Switzerland, stepping next into Germany, home to the EU’s largest population of displaced people. When she arrived in Stuttgart, she made friends with a giant robotic puppet, part of the Dundu Family of German puppets that have brought together audiences internationally since 2006 with spectacular light and music shows. As nighttime arrived, Amal met more of the family, as they lit up the darkness.
When unaccompanied minors like Amal first arrive in Germany, they’re taken into the care of the local youth welfare office, explains Jonathan Sieger, head of the Bürgerzentrum community center and executive board member of NGO Kölner Spendenkonvoi, which assists newly arrived refugees.
These young people are then placed with relatives, a foster family, or a suitable facility, and they must be given a legal guardian, as is the case—although not necessarily the reality—across much of Europe.
One of the main risks young refugees face, Sieger says, is developing long term trauma. “What we are lacking in Germany is general psychological treatment for refugees. Especially for unaccompanied minors, this help is crucial,” Sieger says. This same sentiment has been echoed by organizations across the continent.
Organizations like Bürgerzentrum are supporting young refugees to settle into their new homes. From its base in Cologne, Bürgerzentrum offers cooking workshops, theater classes, cultural events, and trips. Amal’s journey did not end here, but if it did, perhaps she would have found a warm welcome.
As Amal bid farewell to Germany, she continued across Belgium, and then into France.
Walking through France
In the mountain region of Briançon, Amal embarked upon the treacherous path that many refugees have used to cross from Italy into France. She gazed at an exhibition of artwork made from the objects and clothes left behind by those who had traveled before her. In Paris, she saw the Eiffel Tower, and in Lyon she walked through the park with new friends. There was music wherever she went: brass bands, accordions, drumbeats.
Amal was treated with dignity and celebration, but this is not always the reality for refugees in northern France. Police use violence and tear gas, which has been documented by Refugee Rights Europe and others.
Safe Passage International is an organization helping child refugees reach safety and reunite with family, and it works across the UK, France, and Greece. In France, most of the people they support are sleeping on the street when they first come into contact with them.
“Having fled war and persecution, there are thousands of children stuck on the streets or in refugee camps across Europe—nobody can call that safe for a child. Children are at serious risk of violence, exploitation and trafficking. These are children left in limbo and exposed to incredibly dangerous situations,” says the organization’s CEO, Beth Gardiner-Smith.
Amal then made her way to Calais flanked with cheers and flags. This is often the spot where people cross over to the UK. It was the people of the Calais Jungle, a refugee camp that the French government had destroyed in 2016, which served as the original inspiration for Amal. It was also the birthplace of an earlier Good Chance production, The Jungle, about the people who gathered at an Afghan café in the refugee camp. Despite all this, the Mayor of Calais objected to Amal passing through the area and refused to approve a permit.
Like many young refugees before her, Amal crossed the English Channel to the UK. But unlike fellow young refugees, the company of Good Chance actors accompanying Amal crossed the water safely, with passports in hand and comfortable places to sleep on either side of the journey.
Arriving on UK shores
On a grey day toward the end of October, Amal finally stepped onto the shore in Folkestone, Kent, in the south-east of England. The actor Jude Law, who is an ambassador for The Walk, held her hand as she walked down the pier, where schoolchildren welcomed her and gave her a passport, blanket, and cookies.
The day after Amal’s arrival, supporters flocked to Parliament Square in London to join the Refugees Welcome Rally, organized by a collective of refugee organizations. The protest took place in opposition to the government’s new “Nationality and Borders Bill,” which parliament is currently considering.
The Conservative government has stated three objectives for this bill:
- “To make the system fairer and more effective”;
- “To deter illegal entry into the UK”;
- “To remove from the UK those with no right to be here.”
In her opening speech for the bill, Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “The British people have had enough of open borders and uncontrolled migration[…] Enough of dinghies arriving illegally on our shores, directed by organized crime gangs.”
She went on to outline some of the proposed changes, which include a maximum prison sentence of four years for those “entering the country illegally” and additional powers for the Home Office’s Border Force.
The policies outlined in the bill contravene the UN Refugee Convention, which states that refugees should not be penalized for the manner in which they enter a country if they are coming from somewhere where their life or freedom has been threatened.
According to Safe Passage International, the UK government’s bill is aimed, foremost, at deterring migrants and refugees who wish to enter the UK, but fails to address the reasons people leave their countries.
“The UK Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill will cruelly punish refugees who turn to us for compassion and safety, whilst doing nothing to break the business model of smugglers who exploit the lack of safe passage to the UK,” says the organization’s CEO, Beth Gardiner-Smith. “We urge this government to tear up these cruel plans and instead open safe routes for refugees seeking sanctuary in the UK.”
There are currently no visas that would allow a person to travel legally to the UK and claim asylum.
“It’s deeply concerning that virtually the only way now for child refugees to reach the UK from France—regardless of their age, vulnerability, family links or community ties—is to risk a dangerous journey in the back of lorries or on dinghies across the Channel,” Gardiner-Smith added.
If passed, the bill could see many asylum seekers deported to a third country, particularly those who have already traveled through what are considered “safe nations.” The government will introduce “reception centers,” which could resemble the controversial Napier Barracks, criticized for their “squalid” conditions. The bill also paves the way for keeping refugees offshore, where they are detained in so-called processing centers in a third country.
Safe Passage International is calling on the UK government to allow entry to people seeking asylum in cases where they already have family in the UK. They also say the situation for refugees has worsened since Brexit because the EU’s Dublin Regulation, which provided the criteria for defining which country is responsible for examining a refugee’s asylum application, has not yet been replaced with a UK equivalent.
Thankfully, there is a strong network of local organizations across the UK supporting young refugees, like the Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN). Daniel and Osama are two of KRAN’s youth ambassadors. They are also refugees; now they support people who are making the same journeys that they did.
Three years ago, KRAN started a Youth Forum, where young refugees meet to discuss different issues that affect them—like accommodation, education, and mental health. Youth ambassadors like Daniel and Osama act as a bridge between these young people and the organization.
In the forum, young people often describe the contrast between their expectations and their experiences in seeking asylum in the UK. In most instances, they’ve faced challenges at every stage. These stories also highlight the essential role of organizations like KRAN and the Refugee Council, and Refugee Action.
Despite the challenges he’s faced, Daniel has felt welcomed in the UK and does not believe the country’s new immigration plan represents the sentiment of the wider public.
The bill is now in the report stage and awaiting its third reading, after passing its second reading by 366 votes to 265. With a Conservative majority, it seems likely the bill will pass. But there could be legal challenges to Priti Patel’s plan for a Border Force to push back boats carrying refugees.
Both Daniel and Osama met Amal in Kent. They described it as an extraordinary experience.
“It really represents our stories, it represents the suffering that we have been through,” Osama says. “You have this emotional feeling when you see that people are coming just [to see] a puppet and [to give] their warm greetings.”
At the beginning of this month, Amal finally found a home in Manchester. Local schools, refugee communities, and the Manchester International Festival created a spectacle for her arrival: a flock of puppet birds. As Amal moved among the crowd, a flight of swallows acted as her guide, their wings illuminated and flapping gently around Amal. These birds know migration too, making dangerous journeys every year between the UK and South Africa.
“I know that the arrival into the UK specifically, though not only the UK, is not a simple one. Amal and the children she represents only start a much longer journey once they reach their final destinations,” The Walk director Zuabi says.
Zuabi, nonetheless, has hopes for Amal, a puppet who represents all young refugees: “We are not born refugees, it is a circumstance, and this circumstance should be as short as possible.”
If the Nationality and Borders bill is passed, the future could look bleak for asylum seekers hoping for refuge and welcome in the UK. Already, the Border Force has been spotted practising sea push back techniques. Napier Barracks is still operating. But the open arms with which Little Amal has been welcomed and the persistent work of grassroots refugee organizations show that the British people care, and will stand up for their new neighbors. It’s there in Amal’s name—there is hope.
Katie is a British freelance journalist, specializing in human rights and the environment, and assistant editor at award-winning quarterly magazine, Index on Censorship. She was co-editor of a special Lush Times magazine championing social and environmental regeneration, and co-founded the Lush Times online platform. She has travelled the world to report on issues such as vegan activism in Toronto, regenerative farming in India, and the destruction of Sacred Natural Sites in Kenya. She also reported on the UK’s controversial undercover policing scandal.
She has a Journalism Master’s degree from Bournemouth University, and has been a finalist for the New Media Writing Prize and the Fresher’s Writing Prize. Katie lives on the south coast of England.
Follow her on Twitter at @katie_dancey.