Little Amal: Refugee puppet arrives in Belfast

Little Amal on a Lagan Search and Rescue boat
Little Amal made her way into Belfast down Donegall Quay on Thursday evening [BBC]

A 12ft (3.7m) puppet of a 10-year-old Syrian refugee has arrived in Belfast.

Little Amal will make her way across the city from 16-19 May before moving on to Londonderry.

She is the centrepiece of a performance art project, The Walk, and has come to symbolise human rights and bring hope, according to the project.

Little Amal was created to represent the story of young refugees travelling from war-torn Syria highlighting the difficulties they face trying to reach safety.

The puppet docked at Donegall Quay in Belfast at 18:30 BST on Thursday.

Since 2021 Little Amal has visited 15 countries including Turkey, Greece, Ukraine, Italy, France and the US, and toured 160 towns.

She has, however, not been welcomed everywhere and was met with protests in Greece.

Her arrival into Northern Ireland is a signature event in Belfast City Council's Belfast 2024 programme.

She will be in Belfast for four days and will traverse the city visiting peace walls in the west, CS Lewis Square in the east and attending a host of community events and art installations in between.

Little Amal in front of an image of the Harland and Wolff cranes
[Getty Images]

Hundreds of people gathered along Donegall Quay to see Little Amal docking in Belfast.

People along Donegall Quay
Some used Belfast's 'Big Fish' to get a better look [BBC]
Des Kennedy
The creative director for Amal's visit, Des Kennedy, is was eagerly awaiting Amal's arrival in the city [BBC]

Little Amal, whose name means 'hope' in Arabic, was created by the Handspring Puppet Company - the firm behind the puppet horses featured in the War Horse stage play.

Des Kennedy, the creative director for Amal's visit to Belfast, has worked on many theatre projects including Harry Potter and The Cursed Child.

He said Amal's journey was a completely different experience.

"For me as somebody who was born and grew up in Belfast, it is really brilliant to be able to do a large event at this scale.

"To show that we are a world-class city that can produce massive, impressive and impactful art - it is fantastic," he told BBC News NI.

Belfast's Lord Mayor Ryan Murphy
Belfast's Lord Mayor Ryan Murphy was among the first to welcome Amal to the city [BBC]

Amal was greeted by Lord Mayor of Belfast Ryan Murphy.

He told BBC News NI that he hoped her arrival in Northern Ireland would send out a positive message that Belfast was a welcoming place.

"Belfast has been known as being a city of sanctuary. We are very proud that Belfast has opened its doors and welcomed so many people in, people who now call the city of Belfast their home," he said.

Alice Evans, associate producer for The Walk Productions, said Amal's story had been welcomed across the world.

"Amal has met with so many different people, from those in power to those who have been through the same journey.

"She represents joy and everything that she can bring with that - she's been met by so many welcoming and great people," she said.

Alice Evans
Alice said Amal represents joy and she brings it with her everywhere she goes [BBC]

Producer David Lan, who has travelled with Little Amal since 2021, said the public interest had been unexpected.

"It's been a surprise," he said. "When we started it, it was a little idea after meeting people in refugee camps in Calais.

"All of a sudden we were being invited by countries all over the world - a really tremendous number of people come out to see her."

Adrian Kohler
Adrian said Amal had to be larger than life-sized so she could stand out in the crowd [BBC]

The designer of Little Amal, Adrian Kohler, said the decision on her size was poignant.

"She needed to be bigger than life-sized so that when she walked into a crowd you could still see her even with a lot of people - her height was quite critical."

And when it came to Amal's clothes, Mr Kohler said there was a lot of discussion.

"I think I made about 36 different colour choices - before that was settled," he said.

Amal at crowded event
[The Walk Productions]
Rainbow Refugees
The LGBT asylum seeker charity, Rainbow Refugees, also welcomed Little Amal [BBC]

Niamh Rowan from the LGBT asylum seeker charity, Rainbow Refugees, said that the majority of people in Northern Ireland supported refugees.

"I think people see day-to-day that the people of Northern Ireland are welcoming," she said.

"There are things in the media and there's the situation with Rwanda, but to see the regular people of Northern Ireland coming out to support - I think it means a lot to the refugee communities."

Amal's controversy in Greece

During her journey across Europe she shook hands with the Pope at the Vatican and trekked along the white cliffs of Dover to highlight the plight of young refugees.

But she has not been welcomed everywhere on her worldwide journey.

In August 2021, protestors in Larissa, Greece threw stones as she walked the streets. Local councillors in the country also voted to ban her visiting a village of Orthodox monasteries, and protests held in Athens forced her route to be diverted.

In Calais – the French port city which housed the so-called Jungle camp for migrants until 2016 – the mayor also objected to her visit.

Little Amal, whose aim is to “rewrite the narrative about refugees”, comes to the island of Ireland in the context where migration is in the headlines.

In April, Ireland’s Justice Minister Helen McEntee claimed more than 80% of those seeking asylum in the state had crossed the border from Northern Ireland. Ireland has approved plans to redesignate the UK as a “safe country” to which asylum seekers can be returned.

Rishi Sunak’s Illegal Migration Act – which plans to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda – also passed through parliament last month.

However earlier this week, a High Court judge in Belfast ruled that large parts of the act should not apply in Northern Ireland as they breach human rights laws. Interim Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Gavin Robinson said the unequal application of immigration laws could leave Northern Ireland to become a “magnet” for asylum seekers.

Where can you see Little Amal?

Each event will move Amal's story along as she meets people and places each day.

On Friday she will walks through parts of the city centre, visiting Belfast's peace walls and the Cathedral Quarter, before a night of theatrical local music in St Anne's Cathedral.

Over the weekend, the puppet will parade to City Hall and see all four corners of the city.

On Monday she will visit Derry before travelling south to appear in Newcastle and Newry on Wednesday, before crossing the border to Dundalk and, eventually, Dublin.