By Alisha Camacho,
Special to the AFRO
A 12-foot puppet, Little Amal, recently made her debut in Washington, D.C., where she was greeted by a crowd growing in anticipation next to the Big Chair in Anacostia.
“If you weren’t down here, you missed out,” said Juicy Creationz, an artist and Ward 8 resident.
Amal, whose name translates to “hope” in Arabic, represents a 10-year-old Syrian refugee girl looking for her mother. She began her walk across Europe in 2021, following the footsteps of refugees fleeing Syria. Her message is simple, “Don’t forget about us,” as millions of children continue to flee war, violence and persecution.
The puppet has traveled more than 6,000 miles across 15 countries with her team of puppeteers, and has become a global symbol for compassion and human rights. This fall, Amal walks across America, from Boston to San Diego and to Tijuana and Tapachula.
Amal made her entrance in Anacostia by the Big Chair, where the smooth, upbeat sounds of D.C. reverberated through the crowd from a local concert band. The group led her down Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue to the Hillsdale Farmers Market, where she received food for her journey, while turning heads along the way.
Robin McKinney, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner representing 2,000 residents in Ward 8, said she felt “wonderful” welcoming Amal, who brought a message of family values, nutrition and the importance of staying together “not just as a race, but as a culture.”
Anacostia is still considered a food desert, with its limited accessibility to nutritious and affordable food, and the curators of the event said they hoped to foster a conversation around this.
“She’s on a journey herself to find comfort and food,” said Ashley Templeton, the Marketing and Arts and Culture program manager with the Anacostia Business Improvement District.
For Amal to start her walk in a community of D.C. often overlooked, “and feel that warm” is “particularly special, ” said Templeton.
Some Washingtonians were surprised she began her walk in Anacostia.
“I wasn’t expecting her to come here … I would think maybe Northwest or another part of town, but for this area to be chosen, I had to come out and see,” said Michelle Johnson, a resident of Anacostia.
Others noted that she was exactly where she was meant to be. “Anacostia is also a community, predominately African-American, and it’s been unseen for a number of years,” said local artist and resident John Johnson, “There is some symmetry in those two groups coming together … African Americans are like refugees … and I don’t want to, you know, degrade what a Syrian refugee experience has been like, but being an African American in America has been a tough journey.”
Amal’s visit attracted people from around the Greater Washington Area, including 22-year-old actor Deema Turkonani, who is of Syrian descent. After following Amal’s story for “so long,” Turkonani said they felt “pure joy, absolute joy, a sense of community” after seeing the puppet in Anacostia.
“I’m an Arab immigrant, so this is so lovely,” said Turkonani. “The best way to start my morning is to see her and walk with her and see all the community. It’s like seeing family.”
Amal’s walk in Anacostia helped attract positive attention at a time when community members may need a glimpse of hope in the midst of rising crime.
The District recently surpassed 200 homicides, according to data reported by the Metropolitan Police Department, and total crime in Ward 8 has increased nearly 40 percent since this time last year.
“Attention needs to be brought to the area in a positive way,” said Templeton. “Statistics show that when there’s, you know, arts programming, events, crime goes down. And that’s something we’re focusing in on.”
The Anacostia Business Improvement District was awarded a nearly $4 million grant in 2022 from the Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration, to spearhead the development of the Anacostia Arts and Culture District, which was unveiled by the Bower administration this past February.
“The idea is really to ramp up and enhance the arts and cultural programming east of the river,” said Templeton. “Once completed, D.C.’s 11th street bridge project is expected to bring more than a million people across the river, and we also want them to go and support our local businesses, and feel like they have things to stay for.”
Those who are interested can follow and join Amal as she continues her walk across America at walkwithamal.org.