How was seeing Little Amal?! This excited question from a friend prompted the immediate and equally excited reply – Amazing! And it was amazing – doubly so – in that the whole experience of the liturgy and welcome at Westminster Cathedral was both wondrous and wonderful. It was astonishingly profound and moving, and also unsurprisingly joyous, with added moments of lightness, warmth, reflection, mischief and tenderness (such as when she received the gift of a ceramic angel), all courtesy of a 3.5 metre-tall puppet of a walking, searching refugee girl whose name means Hope.
I had been Amal-watching for a while, already moved to tears by photos and short videos on social media as she came closer and closer – hence the unsurprising joy. (And yes; although I’m talking about a puppet, it would seem strange – discourteous almost – to call Amal “it”, such is the skill of her creators and puppeteers, and puppetry’s power of expression and communication.) Time and again I had noticed a depth and quality to the exuberance and welcome from refugee and migrant groups in particular, and at the cathedral this was palpable. In welcoming Amal all of us were welcoming all that she represented, but for me there was a sense that people from the ethnic chaplaincies especially greeted and embraced her as a fellow-traveller, and their joy was all the greater for this.
I was at the cathedral with colleagues, some of them involved in planning the liturgy: confident that our seats were being guarded two of us were outside, soaking up the atmosphere and anticipation, and watching crowds pour in. People from all nations and ages, from across and beyond the diocese, coming to this building where foreigners (including my parents) and visitors have prayed and worshipped for generations, finding hope, comfort, community… The home of our hearts, is what the Cardinal called it, in his welcoming address, and certainly, everyone seemed very much at home. From our spot we were among the first to see Amal arrive, striding purposefully towards us, our view unimpeded. And then quickly back inside to watch her measured, steady progress up the aisle, pausing in wonderment at her new surroundings, before she stood very close to our seats.
Little Amal is huge, even from a distance; much more so up close. Throughout, as she moved around, children in particular flocked to her side and held out their hands to hers.
I managed to take this photo, which I later posted to social media with the brief comment: She’s huge, but as you can see, not at all scary. And that in itself is quite amazing, because small children can easily be scared by anything new or strange which is bigger than themselves; but here there was no terror, only playfulness, friendliness and warmth.
At times Amal moved and responded like any child of ten; at others her impenetrable, reflective gaze gave her the air of someone whom life has seared and matured beyond her years. And isn’t that the reality for all child refugees, and any who have undergone trauma and loss? So yes, the cathedral was filled with joy and song, but reminders of persecution, and the treatment and fate of so many refugees, especially children, was woven throughout our celebrations and our prayers.
Just like the people she represents, Amal has not been accepted wherever she goes – even being pelted with stones; but even at a less visceral level, she still manages to challenge, disturb and discomfort us and our attitudes. And I am reminded of a reflection on the Open Heart by one of my Sacred Heart sisters, Concha Camacho RSCJ, in which she wrote of the demands and difficulty of living with a truly open heart, where admission is “free”, and everyone – and anyone – has a right of entry.
Amal’s walk will soon end, but for the people she represents, the walking and searching, the danger, rejection, destitution and loss continue. And for those of us who are not refugees the challenge continues too, to truly open the homes of our hearts not to an exotic puppet, but to people who are different, strangers, discomforting…
Sr Silvana Dallanegra rscj is the Caritas Westminster Development Worker for West London.
The Cathedral was only one of several London venues visited by Little Amal: photographer David Levene shares his photographic odyssey here, including several rare ‘backstage’ views.
Photo credit: Mazur/CBCEW.org.uk