On Friday, a 12-foot-tall, 10-year-old Syrian refugee will arrive in Baltimore. She’ll spend two days in Charm City, meeting with the mayor, grooving at festivals and experiencing what life here is like.
“Little Amal” — “Amal” meaning “hope” in Arabic — isn’t a real girl, but a larger-than-life puppet that has become a symbol for human rights and refugees around the globe.
“People always look up to her eyes,” said Khadijat Oseni, a Brooklyn, New York-based associate artistic director for Little Amal’s current walk across the U.S. “When she just turns and looks at you, and her hair is blowing, and she’s walking around … you just honestly forget that it’s a puppet.”
Little Amal’s visit to Baltimore is part of a 6,000-mile, two-month journey across the country that started in Boston on Sept. 7 and will span more than 35 destinations, ending in San Diego. Organizers are billing it as one of the biggest free public festivals ever created.
The puppet, made from lightweight materials and operated by three puppeteers at a time, Oseni said, first walked from the border of Syria and Turkey to Manchester, England, in 2021, and has now visited 15 countries.
Last fall, Little Amal traversed all five boroughs of New York City during her first U.S. visit.
“Amal has served as a great beacon and icebreaker, starting conversations on the ground,” Oseni said. “It was inherent from that first trip after so many hearts and minds were shifted, that we needed to take her as far and wide across the globe as we could.”
Little Amal, born from a character in a play titled “The Jungle,” was built by Handspring Puppet Company, founded in South Africa in 1981. The Walk Productions, a nonprofit, coordinates Little Amal’s outings in association with the puppet’s maker and local partners. Organizers hope to raise $5 million “for displaced children around the world” during the puppet’s U.S. tour, Oseni said; the Amal Fund has so far raised more than $339,000.
On Little Amal’s walks there is an emphasis on touring not only city centers, but also “underserved communities,” Oseni said.
Local organizations welcoming her to Baltimore said the city is a can’t-miss stop.
“Coming down the East Coast, how could you skip it?” said Heather Keating, the director of marketing and communications at Creative Alliance, a partner for Little Amal’s upcoming visit. “Baltimore is a very welcoming home and has been for a very long time. … It’s also a port city, so it’s a place where a lot of people come in and enter the United States.”
After arriving at City Hall on Friday afternoon to meet with Mayor Brandon Scott and local faith leaders, Little Amal will kick off Saturday at Rash Field Park. From there, she’ll stroll the Inner Harbor in search of a 4-foot-tall lemon stick-flavored ice cream cone, said Leanna Wetmore, the director of events and programs at the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore.
Along the way, Wetmore said Little Amal will pass a “magical combination” of unicyclists, a marching band, and someone doing the obstacle-traversing sport of parkour.
“The idea is to reflect a very vibrant and diverse, eclectic Baltimore to Amal,” Wetmore, 44, said, adding of the Inner Harbor: “It’s where Baltimore greets the world.”
In the afternoon, the puppet will march from the Patterson Park annex to the Tianquiztli Latin American market and festival, which will run from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. outside Creative Alliance on Eastern Avenue. She’ll be greeted by “Lele,” a representative of a traditional Mexican doll, played by an actor.
It was an “easy yes” for Creative Alliance to participate in Little Amal’s Baltimore trip, Keating said, in part because she believes the Latin American festival’s artisans can relate to the character’s longing for a sense of home and to connect with family.
“They have many family members that they … cannot see, or many of them cannot go home,” Keating, 43, said.
Creative Alliance’s mission jibes with the story told through Little Amal’s U.S. walk, Keating added, saying that “we focus a lot on bringing people together, building bridges, really helping people connect, even though they’re from different backgrounds.”
Little Amal’s Baltimore visit was planned months in advance and has also brought local organizations together in new ways, said Annalisa Dias, Baltimore Center Stage’s director of artistic partnerships and innovation.
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“It’s reigniting a lot of community relationships” that had become more difficult to maintain during the coronavirus pandemic, Dias, 35, said.
When Little Amal stops by the Love Groove Festival at Robert C. Marshall Park on Saturday, she’ll be greeted by members of Baltimore’s arts community, including Center Stage, the Black Arts District and the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance.
Little Amal will smell the oversized flower puppets, created by Center Stage, and watch butterfly puppets made by local students flutter.
“What’s a community, what’s a story of Baltimore that we really want to shine a light on?” Dias recalled thinking when planning began. “If Little Amal comes to Baltimore and does not meet Black artists, and hear and learn and groove with the incredible Black arts history and legacy and present and future here in Baltimore, then we have done a disservice.”
“Baltimore has so many of those stories” of immigration and searching for home, she added.
Little Amal’s itinerary begins Friday, Sept. 15, with a visit to Baltimore City Hall at 4:30 p.m. On Saturday, Sept. 16, she’ll start her day at Rash Field Park at 11 a.m. before visiting Patterson Park at 2 p.m. and Robert C. Marshall Park, her final destination, at 4:30 p.m.
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