Amal, also known as ‘Little Amal’, is a puppet, and contrary to what her name suggests, she is 3.5 meters tall. She epitomizes a refugee child from Syria searching across Europe for her missing mum. This highly creative initiative seeks to recreate and highlight the plight of displaced children and those who have travelled many miles in search of sanctuary. Amal began her journey on the Syria-Turkey border and toured across Greece, Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and then arrived in the UK to be reunited with her mother.
In October 2021 when Amal visited Birmingham, a group of Columbans went to welcome her. A couple of hundred people gathered in a neighbourhood in north Birmingham to welcome the refugee-puppet. What immediately caught my attention were two things; first, it was the expression in her eyes, which to me, conveyed a deep sense of sorrow and nostalgia that I have seen in many faces of refugee friends. The other aspect that caught my attention was the puppeteer manoeuvring the puppet from inside. One could get a glimpse of a silhouette through a small security grill-type frame, making sure Amal’s arms would reach to greet people; that her moves would be coordinated and that her face expression would change accordingly.
For many days I wondered why the puppeteer stayed in my mind. Then I realized that I associated this to a message I constantly hear from the asylum seekers and refugees I accompany as part of my ministry in Birmingham. Many of them often feel trapped, as if they are unable to move freely, as if someone is in control of their lives. Many asylum seekers and refugees feel trapped in an asylum system which prevents them from ’carrying out a normal life’. Their experience of these restrictions and limitations which prevent them from accessing education, financial autonomy paired with the prohibition to access the job market and limited access to legal help, are constant reminders that they are trapped and living a life in limbo.
The consequences of living a life in limbo, without an immigration status, have a detrimental effect on the mental health of many asylum seekers. The ‘In a place like prison’: voices from institutional asylum accommodation, (December 2021) report found that many people feel that their lives have ‘been put on hold, forced into poverty and [placed in] unsuitable accommodation as they wait to learn their fate’. Or as an asylum seeker who I have accompanied said, ‘ I can’t plan anything, you are just someone who is hanging up in the air, whatever is going to happen, whether I’m going to drop down or I’m going to go up… I’m just there, and what kind of life is it?’
The UK parliament is fast moving towards approving what many human right groups have called an anti-refugee Bill. The proposed Nationality and Border Bill, if unchanged, will penalize, criminalize and further restrict vulnerable people who are seeking protection. Little Amal (whose name means hope in Arabic) represents a call for policymakers and those who are in positions of power to work with more compassion and fairness while addressing the issue of migration. Pope Francis invited to us all ‘to overcome the paralysis of fear, the indifference that kills, the cynical disregard that nonchalantly condemns to deaths those on the fringes’, and instead work towards building hearts and societies which welcome, protect, promote and integrate migrants.