The Willesden students who inspired a 3.5m puppet's 8,000km walk from Syria
- Credit: Good Chance Theatre
A 3.5m-tall puppet child that walked from Syria to Manchester over eight months has inspired students at a Brent secondary.
Good Chance theatre company created Little Amal having been involved with Newman Catholic School and hearing from pupils who also had memories of growing up in Syria.
As Little Amal’s 8,000km journey came to an end a month ago, Newman School recalled its collaboration with Good Chance, which started in 2018.
At the time, Dina Mousawi, creative producer at Good Chance Theatre and two artistic directors, Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy, set up a workshop to involve students in the creation of the puppet.
Among the students were Syrian-born Ghufran Al Taisnah and Nour Al Wadi, who would later be interns at Good Chance Theatre.
Behind the creation of the character of Little Amal, a story had to be made up involving a past, hobbies, and a personality.
Dina said: “Nour and Ghufran were vital in that because they lived in Syria and they know what it looks like to be an eight-year-old in Syria.”
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Building a life from scratch starts with the smallest things, with details. What game does Little Amal love? What are her fears, dreams, hopes? Nour and Ghufran started to recall their childhoods in Syria.
When both girls were younger, families would go to large parks, or to the Citadel in Aleppo, to have picnics or barbecues until the early hours of the morning. This was a favourite thing to do for many children. And, naturally, for Little Amal as well.
Damas’ streets were filled with jasmine trees, it’s a smell that Little Amal loves. In summer, the character was written to enjoy sleeping on rooftops and watching the stars.
One day, the girls showed the crew how with a tissue, they made dolls, twisting the corners and ends to make the head, the waist, and arms. Time passed by, and Little Amal’s personality was drawn.
Ghufran and Nour namely witnessed Little Amal’s very first steps in a lavender field in Kent.
Shortly after Little Amal arrived in England, a group of Syrian students led by Mrs Beirne-Francis and Mrs Tetley, went to Lewisham to meet the now internationally known puppet.
It was an opportunity for them to listen to their parents’ experiences: “It shows us what journey our families had to go through to bring us here,” said one of them.
For instance, Yasmin and Yoni’s father had been lost in the mountains for 11 days with a group of people, with no water, while following smugglers.
Students’ stories all roughly follow the same narrative: fleeing the war, the dad was the one who went ahead. In England, he would obtain visas for his children and their mums. Most of them arrived in England when they were 10.
Mahmud’s story differs nevertheless, he had to do his very own walk with his mum and brother. He left Syria in 2014 to stay a few months in Lebanon and Turkey. They travelled for nine days on a boat to Italy where they stayed a few weeks before finally arriving in England. He was 11 at the time.
Little Amal had not been welcomed everywhere. In Greece and France, she faced hostility.
Students also recall being picked on a lot by other children when they arrived in England.
Language being the major issue: “Because you don’t speak English, you can’t defend yourself.”
Nour Al Wadi remembers how hard it was, to go to school, smile, laugh and do her homework like a normal child when every other day she was told that a new person she knew died in Syria. Mohammed added: “Here we have to act as we fit.”
Nour was surprised to see how people engage with Little Amal, but she’s doubtful: ‘Would you treat a real child like this? Would a real child be treated like this soulless puppet? Would they be equal?’
For Yasmin, the puppet is empowering: ‘It shows Syrians they can do it, that they can come to Europe.’
The name Amal means ‘hope’ in Arabic. Dina from Good Chance Theatre said: “I hope that we could live in a tolerant society where everybody has hope and understanding and empathy of the people in different situations to themselves.”
Mohammed, from Newman School, has hope for a “better life” for foreigners coming here.
To that extent, telling and listening to asylum-seekers stories seem vital.