Hundreds of Harvard faculty, students, and Cambridge and Boston residents gathered in Harvard Yard Thursday evening to greet Little Amal, a 12-foot-tall puppet of a 10-year-old Syrian refugee, on the first day of her two-month journey across the United States.
During the event, which was supported by the American Repertory Theater and the Harvard University Committee for the Arts, Amal — the product of the Handspring Puppet Company — arrived in Science Center Plaza just past 7 p.m. to an enraptured crowd, some of whom cried out, “Welcome!” and “Have a safe journey!”
Amal then entered the gates into Harvard Yard, where she walked to the John Harvard statue, pausing occasionally to rest against a tree and peer out at the crowd following her. After briefly hiding behind the statue, she emerged into the center of the Old Yard, where she was enveloped by dancers including Harvard, MIT, and Berklee students, as well as Boston-area residents.
She next walked to the front of Widener Library, where Harvard President Claudine Gay greeted her and gave her a bouquet of flowers.
“We are so honored by your visit and so eager to share our campus with you,” Gay told Amal.
“Our shield, which is emblazoned with the word ‘veritas,’ meaning truth, includes three open books,” Gay added. “And those pages are an invitation to linger and to learn, which is what we hope you will do today, Amal, as we warmly welcome you with flowers and we greet you with our wish for peace.”
As Amal stood in front of Widener, volunteers behind her held signs bearing slogans such as “Learning Has No Borders,” and “Refugees Deserve Quality Education.”
Amal, whose travels have taken her across 15 countries since 2021 according to the puppet’s website, arrived in Boston’s Dewey Square earlier Thursday. There, she was welcomed by Indigenous groups before visiting Chinatown, where she was surrounded by lion dancers, according to The Walk Productions artistic director Amir Nizar Zuabi.
“We are offering a different kind of narrative, a narrative that isn’t based in fear and isn’t based in misery,” Zuabi said of Amal’s journey to the border. “It’s based in hope and based in potential.”
The Walk Productions is producing Amal’s journey, which will span two months and number more than 100 events in dozens of cities including Washington, Detroit, Chicago, Birmingham, New Orleans, and Los Angeles.
Her trip will end at the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego, which Zuabi said was an exploration of how migration — and forced migration — is “entrenched in the American mythology.”
Zuabi called the “big, joyous celebration” of Amal’s travel through Harvard “really moving.”
“At the end of the day, what we were walking through was Harvard, its history, its culture, its community,” Zuabi said. “And the fact that this community’s coming together because of a refugee child is fantastic.”
In Science Center Plaza, Amal was welcomed by Sumbul Siddiqui, the mayor of Cambridge, who emphasized the city’s embrace of refugees.
“I have so many who come to me, and they’re like, ‘I’m seeking asylum here, I’m trying to make a new life here,’” Siddiqui, herself an immigrant from Pakistan, said in an interview. “Her presence here encourages us to recommit to these values and stand up for justice.”
Siddiqui also urged Cambridge residents worried about overdevelopment in the city to consider the impact of new housing for refugees like Amal.
“We have a responsibility to do what we can, and that includes being a welcome and inclusive city that says, ‘Look, we want to have more resources, we want to build more housing,” Siddiqui said.
Students from the Harvard chapter of CityStep, a nonprofit organization that connects college students with local children through dance education, performed a welcome dance as Amal entered Science Center Plaza.
“When a whole community experiences this and is part of it in an embodied way, the message just lands that much more forcefully,” said executive director of CityStep Sabrina T. Peck ’84. “They’re not here to observe, they’re here to partake, and in so doing they will live the themes and ideas of this event.”
“The kids with whom we’re working are so excited that the puppet is of a child, that it’s a Syrian girl,” Peck added. “The young people in the audience, as well as in CityStep, are really connecting with that aspect.”
American choreographer and 2002 MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient Liz Lerman said while watching Amal she was drawn to “her moves, when she chose to turn, what her eyes were doing, how she bent.”
“As a choreographer, it’s good to make people wait — because it’s in the body,” Lerman added. “And that’s what refugees do. They wait at borders, in lines, they wait for food.”
Harvard students in the audience said they were fascinated and moved by the performance.
Ashmit Singh ’27, who immigrated from India to the United States, said he appreciated how Amal was “representative of migrant culture,” saying her story resonated with his own. He said he was also absorbed by the artistry itself: “A 12-foot puppet is always interesting to look at.”
For Brett A. Cardenas ’25, the event added emotional weight to his understanding of the Syrian refugee crisis.
“I felt myself trying to hold back tears at some points, because of how impactful it must have been for a lot of people, especially from people that are from the Middle East,” Cardenas said.
Diane M. Paulus ’88, ART’s artistic director, said the event aimed to mobilize action amid “an international global crisis around refugees.”
“I hope people are moved. I hope this artistic creation reaches people in their hearts,” Paulus added. “My hope is that it doesn’t stop there—that they will ask questions about what more they can do and what more we can do as a community.”
—Staff writer Azusa M. Lippit can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on X @azusalippit.
—Staff writer Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on X @eschisgall.