Immigrants to the U.S. haven’t been particularly welcomed lately.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis seized headlines last week when he flew migrants who had recently arrived in Texas to Martha’s Vineyard. The move recalled Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sending buses of migrants to Washington, D.C. and New York City.
But here in New York, a 10-year-old Syrian girl is getting a different reception.
Her name is Little Amal — and she’s a 12-foot puppet who’s supposed to represent a refugee looking for her mother. Her name, Amal, means "hope" in Arabic.
A group of English theater and film directors and producers came up with the idea for Amal as a way to put a human face on the global refugee crisis. The puppet traversed Europe last year, journeying some 5,000 miles from the Syrian-Turkish border to Manchester, England. Her trip to New York, which started with her arrival at JFK Airport on Sept. 14, will continue through Oct. 2.
“To me, Little Amal coming to New York is Little Amal coming to the biggest stage on earth,” said Yazmany Arboleda, the New York City Artist in Residence and creative producer of "Little Amal Walks New York." “She is transforming all of our streets, our plaza, our parks, into theater.”
Last Friday, Little Amal trekked straight to the epicenter of New York theater, Times Square. There, Broadway performers, tourists, and school children were on hand to greet her.
“I really have been thinking about all the kids who don’t get a warm welcome like Amal is,” said Isabel Ramirez, a junior at Repertory Company High School for Theatre Arts.
Ramirez and her classmates were part of a sing-along to welcome Amal. “I think it is really important to welcome everyone that we can,” she added. “But not everyone gets that.”
Drums heralded Amal’s arrival, and when she appeared at West 47th Street, she seemed somehow lifelike. Operated by three people, the puppet walked tentatively. She looked at the enormous lit-up billboards, and her big eyes blinked.
“She’s scared!” an audience member yelled out, her voice edged with concern.
Amal’s shyness didn’t last long, though. The performers and students began singing “Brand New Day” from the musical "The Wiz." Amal swayed and danced a bit.
Katherine Almirañez captured it on her phone. Born in the Philippines, Almirañez came to the U.S. when she was 8. She felt a personal connection to what Amal represents.
“Part of why I wanted to come was I’m a formerly an undocumented person,” Almirañez explained. She took heart from the big turnout: “People might be coming for the fun of it, but there is a flier going around, conversations happening, and I think that’s really what we want. For people to be talking.”
By the time the crowd broke into “Seasons of Love” from "Rent," some of the performers were crying. Jennifer Malenke has starred in several Broadway productions. When she received the invitation for the Times Square event, she thought that interacting with a giant puppet might feel weird.
“But then you see it and you’re like, I get this. I get it,” Malenke said. “I think anyone who saw that would be moved.”
Paul Kreppel, who performs in the Broadway revival of "Into the Woods," didn’t sing, but observed raptly. “Those moments just touch the child in you, and expand you, and open your heart,” he said.
Arboleda, the producer of Amal’s 17-day swing through New York, beamed as he surveyed the crowd. In addition to putting on a good show, he wanted people to think about a deeper message.
“How do we take care of each other?” he asked. “How do we embody, with these gestures and with this artwork, the truth about how we should be reacting to all of the human beings who are seeking a safe place to live? If this is possible in the city of New York, what else is possible?”
Little Amal’s Times Square visit was just one part of her New York itinerary. She is scheduled to listen to hip-hop in the Bronx and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. She’ll also visit the Statue of Liberty, and join a Syrian wedding procession in Bay Ridge.
And, Arboleda says, organizers are planning for her to continue her U.S. journey next year.
Here's where you can meet Little Amal during the rest of her visit:
Wednesday, Sept. 21
- 11 a.m.: Community Garden, 55-25 Van Cleef St., Corona, Queens
- 4:30 p.m.: Queens Museum, Flushing Meadows Corona Park
- 7 p.m.: Diversity Plaza, Jackson Heights
Thursday, Sept. 22
- 3:30 p.m.: Brooklyn Children's Museum
- 5 p.m.: Restoration Plaza, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn
Friday, Sept. 23
- 3:30 p.m.: Gothic Archway, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn
- 5:30 p.m.: Syrian wedding procession, 5th Ave. & 68th St., Bay Ridge
- 7:30 p.m:. STREB Lab for Action Mechanics, Berry St. & North 5th St., Williamsburg (reservations required for indoor portion at 8 p.m.)
Saturday, Sept. 24
- 10 a.m.: St Ann's Warehouse, Brooklyn (reservations recommended for puppet and postcard design workshop at 10 a.m.)
Sunday, Sept. 25
- 4 p.m.: Willis Playground, Willis Ave., Mott Haven, the Bronx
- 6:30 p.m.: Fordham, the Bronx
Monday, Sept. 26
- 11 a.m.: High Bridge Bronx entrance, the Bronx
- 3:30 p.m.: State Office Building Plaza on 125th St., Harlem
- 6 p.m.: Bryant Park, Manhattan
Wednesday, Sept. 28
- 1 p.m.: Tenement Museum, Chinatown, Lower East Side
- 4 p.m.: Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Education Center, Lower East Side
- 7 p.m.: La MaMa, 66 East 4th St., East Village (procession to Washington Square Park)
Thursday, Sept. 29
- 10 a.m.: New York City Hall, Manhattan
Friday, Sept. 30
- Staten Island Ferry (pier and other details to be determined)
- 5 p.m.: Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden, Staten Island (Amal arrives at 6 p.m.)
- 8 p.m.: Amal meets with families of Sept. 11 victims, location TBA
Saturday, Oct. 1
- 1 p.m.: Charging Bull, Bowling Green, Lower Manhattan
- Amal learns about the immigrants and refugees who came before her; location and times TBA
Sunday, Oct. 2
- 2:30 p.m.: Annual Atlantic Antic, Atlantic Ave. & Clinton St., Brooklyn
- 5 p.m.: Near St. Ann's Warehouse, Brooklyn
- 7 p.m.: St. Ann's Warehouse, Brooklyn
For complete details concerning Little Amal’s visit to New York City, go to walkwithamal.org.