Little Amal has travelled hundreds of miles… to deliver a message about the desperate fate of refugee children separated from their families by conflict.
After a journey of 8,000 kilometres (around 5,000 miles) starting on Turkish/Syrian border, a three and a half metre (11ft 5in) girl puppet, made by Handspring of War Horse fame, named Little Amal, has arrived on the South Coast of England at Folkstone. Inspired by Good Chance Theatre Group her journey, named The Walk, is intended to raise awareness of the plight of unaccompanied child refugees journeying often alone in the hope of being reunited with their families
Good Chance put on a play about the Calais Jungle in London a few years ago which was a challenging and moving message to France and the UK in particular, and Europe generally, about the treatment of people who have lost everything, including relatives, and are adrift in an unfriendly world.
In an atmosphere of warmth and carnival, different to the reception that so many real people receive on these shores, she was welcomed by thousands of Folkestone residents including children and the actor, Jude Law. A massed choir from London Contemporary Voices and Citizens of the World Choir performed a song composed by Anil Sebastian and Kent Refugee Network. Local churches were involved as well as businesses on the harbour arm.
This reflected the greeting by the Pope in Rome and her warm welcome to the United Nations in Geneva.
Amal – her name means Hope in Arabic – has been welcomed by the Pope, but stoned in a village in Greece
However, it was not all celebration, as in one particular village in Greece she was stoned and was asked to bypass others. The Mayor of Calais questioned her presence and one local UKIP councillor in Folkestone reflected that he could only welcome refugees with the correct passports or papers.
Grim as these responses are, they need to be addressed and it is only by engaging with those who are unaware of the true facts, or fearful or even downright hostile, that we can engender sympathy and practical help for those in the vortex of this humanitarian crisis.
Little Amal, whose name means Hope in Arabic, moves on to Dover and then to Canterbury and eventually to a new life in Manchester, by way of London where she will celebrate her 10th birthday with a party at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Symbolically this will be the first birthday away from her family. There will even be a special birthday cake made by the Israeli-born chef and food writer Yotam Ottolenghi. Would that all child refugees received such a welcome!
Whether by accident or design, Little Amal has arrived in the UK during the week that the Nationality and Borders Bill enters its committee stage, a bill designed to criminalise many asylum seekers and any who try to help them.
On 20 October there was a gathering in Parliament Square to oppose this bill. From Sussex with its City and communities of Sanctuary we say thank you to them and celebrate with Folkestone in their welcome to Little Amal.