By Charlie Arbuckle
The giant puppet of a young refugee girl called Little Amal was greeted with a warm reception of colourful banners and a diverse sea of cheering faces when she arrived at Victoria Quays in Sheffield.
The first City of Sanctuary is one of the last stops in Amal’s 8,000 km journey across Europe to raise awareness of the plight faced by refugees.
The celebrations on Friday featured a wide array of arts and crafts, loosely choreographed expressionist dancing, and music from across the globe.
This culminated in a short march through town as thousands of people rallied around the 3.5 metre-tall puppet, stylised after a young Syrian girl.
The Amal movement has carried her from the Turkey-Syria border across Europe in an adventure to find her mother and start a new life, deliberately taking inspiration from the real-life plights of Syrian refugees.
Amal’s journey has been met with celebration and spectacle across the globe, and Sheffield is no exception, with one elderly spectator recounting it being a “fascinating event, and something worth seeing”.
Another Sheffield spectator said: “It really is a beautiful display, and fitting of England’s first sanctuary city, everyone wants to disparage immigration and say that we haven’t lived alongside it, but I have as a teacher and it really enriches this country.”
Director and co-ordinator of the event, Amir Nizar Zuabi is a Palestinian playwright, with an expansive back catalogue of thought-provoking pieces.
He described having immigration in his DNA, with a mixed background of Jewish Holocaust refugees and displaced Palestinian exiles.
Zuabi described his need to “create a new model of theatre” inspired by the Syrian refugee crisis and was determined to take his performances to the streets where the stories of the migrants will be centred.
However, while Sheffield’s welcome of Amal was fitting of the UK’s first City of Sanctuary, some of her 5,000-mile journey has been rough, paralleling the lived experiences of refugees across Europe. Most notorious was a series of attacks by far-right groups in Greece, with bottles and stones and a subsequent change of route as anti-migrant tensions rose in Athens, furthermore the mayor of the French city of Calais raised objections at the presence of Amal.
But, despite this, Amal, whose name translates to hope, has maintained a spirit of unity and peace. Refugee children in Syria welcomed her with lanterns made with the help of volunteers, some of whom were refugees from Calais. The puppet also had an audience with the Pope in the Vatican.
Amal’s epic journey is set to culminate in Manchester, with Sheffield as one of the final stops, and it has been, by all accounts, an unprecedented success, raising nearly £30,000 for charity so far.
As well as this, Amal has been spreading awareness and solidarity across Europe at a time when it is sorely needed.
Amal has shown how immigration can enrich and enhance the culture of a city, and demonstrated how people can come together on a scale that very few other pieces of performance art can.