A symbol of displaced refugee children, she’ll arrive in Manchester after an 8000 km-search for her mother

Manchester International Festival (MIF) has announced the first event for its 2021 edition, which will take place from 1st - 18th July.

Between April and July next year, a 3.5-metre-tall-puppet called Little Amal will travel 8000 km through Europe in search of her mother. The puppet, who represents a refugee girl just nine years old - and is an emblem of the millions of displaced refugee children separated from their families - will finish her epic journey in Manchester, on the opening weekend of MIF.

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‘The Walk’ will see puppet Little Amal undertake an extraordinary journey from the Turkish-Syrian border to Manchester

Little Amal’s route from Gaziantep in Turkey to Manchester will take in Greece, Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and finally the UK. Embodying the urgent message ‘don’t forget about us,’ she will be welcomed by over 70 cities, towns and villages with art; from major street parades and citywide performances of music, dance and theatre to intimate community events.

The poignant finale moment on Sunday 4th July - forming a highlight of MIF21’s opening weekend - will be marked with a large-scale free public event in the heart of Greater Manchester, a place that has long welcomed its diverse and dynamic population of refugee and migrant communities and has the highest concentration of dispersed asylum seekers in the UK outside of London.

Introducing The Walk from MIF on Vimeo.

The Walk will see MIF collaborate with renowned theatre company Good Chance, creators of critically-acclaimed The Jungle, and world-famous creators of War Horse, Handspring Puppet Company.  

A programme of creative engagement activity with communities from across Greater Manchester - leading up to, and throughout, the festival’s opening weekend - will help to create Little Amal’s welcome. 

In these divisive times, The Walk will shine a light on the region and its people, as a home and refuge for those who need it. It will build on the legacy of MIF projects such as the Beating Wing OrchestraToGather (MIF17), The Welcoming Party (MIF17) and most recently School of Integration (MIF19) which saw over 100 people from over 50 countries take over Manchester Art Gallery to deliver unique classes, from food and customs to ethics and politics.

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Little Amal highlights the plight of displaced children, each with their own story, who are more vulnerable than ever during the global pandemic

In less positive MIF news, it was revealed earlier this week that the festival's future home The Factory - beset by setbacks and price hikes since its conception - has seen its costs rocket up another £45 million, taking its budget to £186 million. That’s £108 million more than when the project was first announced in 2014, at a projected cost of £78 million. 

The ambitious arts centre is predicted to bring a £1.1 billion boost to Manchester’s economy over its first decade as well as attracting up to 850,000 visitors annually, fostering 1500 new jobs and benefitting up to 10,000 unemployed young people in the next few years through its Factory Futures programme. A catalyst for the regeneration of the wider St John’s creative neighbourhood and Enterprise City, it’s been identified as one of the key projects which will help power Manchester’s economic recovery post-pandemic.

The Factory New Cgi
The Factory will help the next generation of creative talent flourish - once it’s finally built

But development of venue, which will also be home to MIF, has undergone a series of challenges from design revisions to delays. The latest is COVID-19, which has seen construction - well underway last year - severely affected, accounting for much of the latest budget increase. With the council already stumping up £50.6 million (which joins £78m government plus £7m National Lottery funding through Arts Council England and donations raised through fundraising), plans are to meet the latest budget increase through national funding bids and enhanced fundraising. See the report here.

Nevertheless, planning for MIF21 - which will again take place citywide in the absence of its Factory home - is underway, with Little Amal's The Walk just the beginning of what’s set to be another thought-provoking and diverse programme. 

Commenting on the event, festival CEO and artistic director John McGrath said: “At MIF, we have a proud history of creating large-scale participatory events that bring the city together. As we continue to navigate these uncertain times, a project like this feels more important than ever (in) encapsulating everything that the arts can do; crossing borders, starting important conversations and bringing communities together. We hope that families, communities, schools, friends and neighbours - everyone who calls Greater Manchester their home - will help us welcome Little Amal.”

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‘At this time of unprecedented global change, The Walk is an extraordinary artistic response: a cultural odyssey transcending borders, politics and language, to tell a new story of shared humanity’

Amir Nizar Zuabi, artistic director of The Walk stated: “It is because the attention of the world is elsewhere right now that it is more important than ever to reignite the conversation about the refugee crisis and change the narrative around it. Yes, refugees need food and blankets, but they also need dignity and a voice. The purpose of The Walk is to highlight the potential of the refugee, not just their dire circumstances. Little Amal is 3.5 metres tall because we want her to inspire us to think big and to act bigger.” 

The Walk will take place on 4th July 2021, coinciding with the launch of MIF 2021 - free admission, location TBA.

Little Amal images: Bevan Roos 

Read more: The Factory - £130m arts centre reaches major milestone