A 10-year-old girl mesmerized children and adults alike on the lakefront Thursday with her message of hope and larger-than-life personality. But this girl wasn’t made of flesh and bone.
Little Amal, a 12-foot puppet representing a 10-year-old Syrian refugee girl, made her first stop in Chicago at Navy Pier as she continues her walk across America to the West Coast.
Her walk is intended to inspire hope and draw attention to the plight of many refugees around the world, half of whom are children. Amal means hope in Arabic.
Hundreds followed the animatronic puppet as she marveled at her surroundings during her trek from the Chicago Shakespeare Theater to Polk Bros Park. Adults couldn’t help but smile, and children walked up to the puppet like she was an old friend, eager to shake her hand or give her a hug.
Lena Kasi, whose family is from Syria, was overcome with emotion and was glad that so many people came out to welcome Amal to Chicago.
“It was very emotional to see Little Amal, the fact that the war has taken 13 years and there’s still no closure for the people that have been lost by the war. It was very hard to see her walk and engage the people and being welcomed to Chicago,” Kasi said.
Little Amal was featured in several artistic performances during her Navy Pier trek. Organizers said the event was meant to show the power of art to create connection.
The Syrian Community Network, which helps Syrian and Middle Eastern immigrants put down roots in the city, welcomed Amal with traditional Syrian music. She then engaged performers with Artists Breaking Limits & Expectations (A.B.L.E.), a nonprofit that stages productions with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Little Amal danced along as Move Me Soul’s youth dance ensemble escorted her to the 16-foot sculpture of a youth wearing goggles called “Flyboy” outside the Chicago Children’s Museum.
Here, Little Amal appeared to have found a kindred spirit, and crossed her arms to imitate the sculpture’s iconic pose. And finally, the puppet was embraced by over 70 members of the youth choir Uniting Voices as they performed their original song “We All Live Here.”
“It was wonderful to see so many non-Arab people come out and support Amal. It shows that we are really one world united, and I think people really feel for each other, and it was very evident today,” Kasi said.
Suzanne Akhras, executive director of SCN, said seeing Amal be greeted by throngs of people at the lakefront is a “huge deal” for her as an immigrant and her organization.
“My inner child, my inner Amal is coming out. I came here with my family, and I remember how difficult it was. There was no community for us, we struggled a lot,” Akhras said. “It took us several years to adjust to life in Chicago and in the U.S. So it’s very personal for me and for everyone that serves at my organization.”
Little Amal’s stop in the city comes as it struggles to house thousands of asylum-seekers who have found themselves in Chicago after being bused to the city from border states like Texas.
Akhras said she hopes Little Amal’s message gets through to legislators and convinces them to pursue immigration reform laws and stops the busing practice.
“It’s really sad to see refugees weaponized, so I hope our lawmakers will be watching and thinking about immigration reform once and for all,” Akhras said. “This is a fight that’s been going for what, 20 years? Enough already.”
Amal has traveled over 6,000 miles to 97 towns and cities in 15 countries, including Turkey, Greece, Italy, France and the U.K. since July 2021. Amal’s U.S. trek began in Boston on Sept. 7 and will end in San Diego on Nov. 5. Organizers said 1,000-plus artists and organizations will create more than 100 free public events to welcome her.
Erica Owusu, 29, brought her two young children to see Little Amal walk on Navy Pier. She wanted them to learn about her story.
“It’s a great thing that they’re doing. She’s walked like 6,000 miles; it’s good to keep the legacy going so children can see it. I think they should keep this going,” Owusu said.
The puppet of Little Amal was designed and built by Handspring Puppet Company, which created the puppets for the international hit play “War Horse.” It takes four puppeteers to bring Little Amal to life.
Little Amal’s next stop is Saturday at Jordan Community Elementary School, 7414 N. Wolcott Ave., where she will join students for lessons and games. She will sail down the Chicago River later that day.