Towering above the crowds, Little Amal, a 12-foot-tall puppet of a young girl, began her solidarity walk in Toronto at Union Station on Wednesday.
The puppet represents a 10-year-old Syrian girl and followed the sounds of drumming and a trail of fluttering paper monarch butterflies accompanied by a huge crowd of people and little children across downtown Toronto.
“Walk with Amal Toronto” is a collaborative event produced by Walk Productions, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and Luminato Festival Toronto to bring the city’s attention to displaced children. It also marked the start of the yearly international art festival in the city.
Pamela Richardson, a volunteer at the Luminato Festival, said Toronto is a representative place for Amal to begin her solidarity walk.
“Toronto is the perfect place for her to be walking because we have so many newcomers and immigrants who have come to us just like Amal,” Richardson said.
According to Aanjalie Roane, the Director of Communications at MSF, the puppet represents a Syrian refugee girl who travels the world searching for her mother. The monarch butterflies symbolize the dangerous migratory route taken by refugees.
“We thought it was very representative and symbolic of the migratory and displacement that people around the world are experiencing,” Roane said.
The walk ended at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square with a performance by the Juno Award-winning band Digging Roots.
From June 7 to 11, the giant puppet will continue travelling to multiple locations around Toronto, including Scarborough, Mississauga, Brampton and Waterfront, before travelling to Norway and the United States.
The Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa created the giant puppet and was inspired by the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015.
According to the Walk Productions’ website, the creation of Amal seeks to challenge the notion that refugees are to be feared and invites communities to welcome them.
The puppet has travelled to 13 countries since 2021 to bring the world’s attention to global displacement crises.
According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), Canada processed more than 91,000 asylum claims last year, more than three times the number of claims in 2021.
More than 60,000 new Syrian-born refugees were settled in Canada, making up over a quarter of the new refugee population in the country from 2016 to 2021, according to Statistics Canada.
The most recent estimates from the United Nations show that there were 100 million individuals forcibly displaced. In 2021, 36.5 million children were displaced due to war, violence and climate change.
Roane said displacements have profound impacts on the well-being of children caused by the disruptions of essential medical care and exposure to gender-based violence.
“I think what we’re witnessing in Canada and beyond is increasingly polarized sentiments around forced displacement,” she said.
“At a time when we’re seeing higher levels of displacement around the world, higher levels of medical and humanitarian needs than ever before, we really should have no excuse than to show pure empathy and solidarity for people facing these very different circumstances,” Roane said.