12 feet of hope: ‘Little Amal’ the refugee has a big impact at UCLA Community School

Jessica Wolf | 

 

Key takeaways ​​

  • The “Little Amal” project has visited 14 countries around the world since 2021 to raise awareness about the plight of refugees and migrants.
  • Young people at the UCLA Community School spent weeks preparing for the arrival of the giant puppet with the help of educators from UCLA’s Design for Sharing arts education program.
  • Students created poetry and works of art, much of it based on their personal experiences, to welcome Amal. ​​​​​

A larger-than-life artistic representation of a 10-year-old Syrian refugee girl took her first steps on a journey through Los Angeles Wednesday at the UCLA Community School in Koreatown, where she received an enthusiastic welcome from students and families.

“Little Amal,” as she is known — Amal means hope in Arabic — is designed to raise awareness of and empathy for the plight of refugees and migrants fleeing war, famine and persecution around the globe. Crafted by the South Africa–based Handspring Puppet Company, the 12-foot Amal, who is operated by three puppeteers, is at the tail end of a 6,000-mile walk across America that began in Boston and concludes this weekend in San Diego.

At the UCLA Community School, young people greeted her with cheers, hugs, signs and handmade paper poppies while a local student band, Maqueos Music, provided a festive soundtrack of traditional Oaxacan tunes.

Students at the school — a partnership between UCLA and the Los Angeles Unified School District and one of six campuses that make up the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex — had been preparing for Amal’s visit for six weeks with the help of their teachers and educators from Design for Sharing, the K–12 arts education program of the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, which was one of more than a dozen arts and cultural institutions that helped facilitate Amal’s visit to Los Angeles.

In the classroom, the students explored themes of migration and the search for a safe home and created their own art and poetry in response. Their work, much of it based on personal and family experience, was displayed in the courtyard of the school complex for Amal’s arrival.

Students prepared signs featuring the word “hope” in different languages and messages of compassion for Little Amal.

“It has been so profound to hear our students’ and teachers’ stories about their own personal journeys of searching for home,” said Meryl Friedman, director of education and special initiatives for Design for Sharing, which has been conducting arts residencies with fourth- and fifth-grade classes since the UCLA Community School opened 14 years ago. “Tied up with that is the desire to be seen and heard, especially when you feel invisible or you feel the need to remain invisible because you fear you are not welcome.”

The paper poppies students designed and decorated to wave with and offer as gifts to Amal brought a particularly local resonance to the themes of hope and compassion the giant puppet represents. California’s golden poppy is a symbol of hope and resilience, one that brings great beauty to the landscape when conditions allow for it to thrive, said Teresa Willis-Peters, Design for Sharing’s education program coordinator.

“After spending several weeks working deeply on the ‘big ideas’ around Amal’s story, making a poppy was the last step of the residency,” Willis-Peters said. “It was moving to see how much care, how much of themselves they put into each paper petal — and how seriously they took the idea of these flowers being a gift for Amal. The students worked with care but also with joy and openness. As they greeted Amal, it was clear that their big, sunshiny flowers carried all of that.”

The California golden poppies students designed out of paper gave a local resonance Amal’s message of hope.

Following her American sojourn, Little Amal will visit seven cities in Mexico during November. Since July 2021, she has brought her message of compassion and understanding to 97 cities and towns in 14 countries, from the Syrian border to the U.K. and the U.S., and has been welcomed by more than a million people.

Friedman said that having Amal interact and walk with students from the UCLA Community School was a source of validation and acceptance for them.

“We’ve seen how their welcome of her — how they prepared for it and embraced it — was for them, ultimately, an act of empowerment and of generosity,” she said. “You can’t truly welcome a person or new ideas without empathy and curiosity … And given all that is going on in the world, to have this moment of wonder and welcome and grace and trust is a gift for us all. We have so much to learn from our young people, if we would only listen to what they are telling us.”

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