Although Amal, a towering 12-foot puppet representing a ten-year-old Syrian refugee girl, is silent, she speaks a universal language of empathy that has shifted countless perspectives, including in our Windy City.
“From the very first journey, it was apparent that this was something the community was craving,” says associate artistic director Khadijat Oseni. A collaborative effort by The Walk Productions, led by David Lan and Tracey Seaward, with playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi as artistic director, this touring international arts festival aims to foster connections and provide underrepresented communities an opportunity to share their stories directly.
The puppet itself was designed and created by the Handspring Puppet Company, known for their majestic puppets in the sensational War Horse. Amal has already visited 15 countries, from her initial 5,000-mile trip across Europe in 2021 to an exploration of all five boroughs of New York City in 2022. And now, she embarks on her latest trek: Amal Walks Across America. Between September 7 and November 5, she’ll travel 6,000 miles across the United States, touching 40 towns and cities.
Thu 9/28 5:30 PM, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand; Thu 9/28 8 PM, National Museum of Mexican Art, 8 PM; Fri 9/29 11 AM, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 24 E. Wacker; Fri 9/29 3 PM, Jordan Community Elementary School, 7414 N. Wolcott; Fri 9/29 7 PM, Chicago River from Wolf Point to DuSable Lake Shore Drive; Sat 9/30 10:30 AM, Margate Park, 4400 N. DuSable Lake Shore Drive; Sat 9/30 6:30 PM, Maggie Daley Park, 337 E. Randolph, walkwithamal.org
Oseni has witnessed the power of Amal’s presence firsthand. “The first day in D.C., you just saw older immigrants that, because it was a means of survival to leave where they came from for a better life, there wasn’t a moment to breathe and celebrate the resilience that took,” she recalls. “When they saw Amal, it moved them to tears because it was an honor to have a story like theirs reflected.”
But Amal’s impact isn’t limited to adults alone. “Children are very perceptive, and they feel before words get in the way of emotions,” Oseni says. “We have an educational guide that we send out to public schools where kids can start having these conversations about why people had to leave their homes, whether it’s climate change or the neighborhoods have been overturned because of gentrification.”
Lauren West, director of development and communications at the Syrian Community Network, says she’s excited to meet Amal. “She’s someone we’ve followed since she started her journey,” West says. “She’s a great depiction of what it means to be a child who has had to leave their home country and is searching for her new home.”
Oseni adds: “She’s an icebreaker for people to learn how to connect with each other in a way that is transforming how we typically see each other because sometimes when you interact every day, you’re not often looking through the lens of how we all got here and celebrating the resilience of how we get through each day.”
Amal arrives at Navy Pier, where the Chicago Shakespeare Theater welcomes her with performances by Uniting Voices and A.B.L.E (Artists Breaking Limits and Expectations), in collaboration with the Syrian Community Network. Outside the Chicago Children’s Museum, Amal meets Flyboy, a 16-foot sculpture by local artist Hebru Brantley. Later that evening, she stops by the National Museum of Mexican Art, where Syrian artist Tammam Azzam’s work is showcased. “It not only decentralizes where art should exist, but it also decentralizes where people’s bodies should freely exist as well,” Oseni explains.
The following day, Amal walks along the Riverwalk and sails down the Chicago River as the sun sets, uniting onlookers at the riverbanks as they wave at the gentle giant. On Saturday morning, she learns how to make stone soup with Chicago’s youth from organizations including the Chicago Children’s Theatre, Civic Orchestra of Chicago, CircEsteem, and the Syrian Community Network. (“Stone Soup” is a European folktale about the value of sharing and community building.) Soup and Bread will also be catering free soup from Edgewater’s Falafel Kebab Station.
As night falls, Amal finds a place to rest at Maggie Daley Park before continuing her journey to Saint Louis.
According to Oseni, Amal challenges us to look at shared human experiences through the empathetic lens of theater. “That gets people out of their silos of what they think is possible, and when you implant the idea that things can be seen differently, the real work begins when she leaves.”
Already, she has sparked dialogues about the parallels between her story and the unfolding crisis in the city, where Chicago migrants are seeking asylum. “I did have a very interesting discussion with the Shakespeare Theater,” West says. “She truly embodies this walk, and that is something that connects to the migrants currently in Chicago.”
Beyond its emotional impact, this initiative also has a concrete goal: to raise $5 million for displaced children worldwide, in partnership with UK-based NGO Choose Love. These funds are intended to provide educational resources, medical care, legal assistance, and other urgent aid to refugee children. Over $340,000 has already been raised, says Oseni.
“We’re hoping that collectively we all dream of bigger possibilities,” she says. “And that’s just the beginning.”