Little Amal: A 12-Foot-Tall Puppet Visits Austin with a Larger-Than-Life Message
By Isabella McGovern
Children’s faces lit up as they looked up to the 12-foot-tall puppet made of cane and carbon fiber with long brown hair made of Tyvek tied with a red string. Phones were raised in the air to capture the sight as “Little Amal” visited Austin for the first time to call attention to the plight of refugees around the world.
“She’s made larger than life so that people also can look up to refugees,” said Bruna d’Avila, a programming associate for The Walk Productions. “During events, you’ll see that people have to look up at her because she is 12 feet tall, and it’s something that people not always do: look up to refugees.”
Little Amal is modeled as a fictional 10-year-old Syrian refugee girl who has journeyed in search of her mother. The puppet traveled across Europe in 2021 and has now been in the United States since Sept. 7. Her visits raise awareness of the importance of human rights for all, especially refugees.
Last Friday, Amal stopped in Austin. She got a check-up from Interfaith Action of Central Texas and danced with the Butler Fellows dancers from Ballet Austin TWO at Huston-Tillotson University. She later appeared at the Texas State Capitol.
At Huston-Tillotson University, a private university in East Austin, Amal met with university President Melva K. Wallace, who gave Amal an honorary scholarship.
“Our students believe that this institution protects them, their spirit, their minds and encourages them to continue to grow,” Wallace said. “It was really exciting to give someone like Amal who embodies all of those things.”
More than 100 people gathered around Amal to watch as AJ Tareen, health and wellness coordinator from Interfaith Action, gave Amal a heart check, an oral exam and a shot. Interfaith Action of Central Texas offers diverse faith community programs and services to those in need, especially refugees.
“We have a health and wellness program, that this past year was for Afghans only but we now expanded it for all refugees,” said Chad Pevateaux, refugee program co-cirector for the interfaith group. “It’s just been great and it was a wonderful event; I think it spread hope.”
After Amal’s check-up, the crowd followed her to a cleared parking lot to watch the Butler Fellows dancers perform with Amal while the Huston-Tillotson Brass Band played in the background. The Butler Fellows is a trainee program for ballet dancers and they were invited to dance for this special event.
“We are so glad to be able to do this event,” said Alexa Capareda, rehearsal director for Ballet Austin TWO for the Butler Fellows program. “I just think (Amal) is so articulate and so realistic.”
Amal then headed to the Capitol for The Walk with Amal: “An Honor of Bravery from Bat City.”
The puppet was greeted by more than 100 people with live music from the Minor Mishap Marching Band. The event’s bat theme, tied to Austin’s Mexican free-tailed bat colony, was meant to signify that migrants and refugees like Amal journey to find a new home just as bats do.
Austin City Council Member Vanessa Fuentes declared Oct. 20 as “Little Amal Day” and gave her an Honor of Bravery medal.
“We are here today to be part of something bigger than us both literally and figuratively,” Fuentes said. “A movement that’s bigger than me, that’s bigger than us and bigger than our city because today we play profound tribute to the remarkable courage of migrants and immigrants and refugees.”
The Walk U.S. tour started in Boston and will end Nov. 26 in San Diego. It is estimated that Amal will have visited 42 different cities, walked 11,000 miles across the country and attended over 120 events.
After San Diego, Amal will cross the border into Mexico to walk from Tijuana to Tapachula. The team is excited because they are finally in Texas, which is the closest state to the borderlands, and for the next couple of weeks, they will focus on the issue of the border crisis in America.
“This project always felt like there was something pulling Amal towards the border and the crisis that is happening right now,” said d’Avila. “I love how this project also breaks down those walls of these stereotypes because a lot of immigrants and a lot of refugees are not welcomed with kindness like that but we have been very lucky and grateful that we have been welcomed with open arms everywhere we go.”
Over half of refugees around the world are children. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, 43.3 million were children below the age of 18 in 2022, and 1.9 million were children born as refugees between 2018 and 2022.
“A lot of people ask, ‘Is she a real girl; is she based on a real girl,’” said d’Avila. “She’s not based on one girl; she represents all.”