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"Little Amal's" giant mission to soften European hearts to refugees

Giant puppet raises awareness for refugees
Giant puppet of Syrian girl raises awareness for refugees 03:27

London — A giant puppet made to look like a young girl has walked across Europe carrying a message: "Don't forget about us!" The puppet, named Little Amal, and her operators travelled across the continent to raise awareness of the tens of millions of refugees around the world, and to try to change peoples' perception of them.

CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer caught up with her recently near the end of her trek. Cameras and onlookers watched as "Little Amal" — not so little, actually, at 11-feet-tall — followed in the footsteps of thousands of others, trudging up from a boat in the English Channel and onto British soil.

A team of skilled puppeteers from the Handspring Puppet Company joined forces with the Good Chance Theater to create Little Amal — a larger-than-life 9-year-old Syrian refugee girl searching for her mother. Their aim was to focus the world's attention on the plight of asylum-seekers.

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The welcoming committee on the English beach at Folkestone included school kids and actor Jude Law. Everywhere along her nearly-5,000-mile journey, Little Amal has drawn crowds.

She's a huge symbol dwarfed only by the scale of the very real humanitarian crisis she represents: There are now more than 20 million refugees worldwide, and more than half of them are under the age of 18.

'Little Amal', Migrant Puppet Traversing Europe, Arrives In England
The 'Little Amal" puppet is walked along Folkestone Pier, October 19, 2021 in Folkestone, England. Dan Kitwood/Getty

In the crowd that gathered to greet Little Amal in London, Palmer met one of the lucky ones. Bayan, a refugee, has now safely settled in Britain.

She told CBS News she came out to see Amal because the puppet reminded her "of my story — because I have to leave Syria, walking through Jordan, and I am proud of myself."

Little Amal set out from Gaziantep, Turkey in July. Her trek through eight countries was intended to focus attention on the desperation of refugees. Most come to Europe by sea, and almost 90,000 have reached the continent already this year.

They are packed into boats by people smugglers who leave them to be rescued, or to drown. 20,000 have made it to the U.K. alone, including many children, and even newborns.

But they're not always welcomed, and neither was Little Amal. Anti-immigration protesters pelted her with rocks in Greece.

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But there has been plenty of love, too. From a beaming Pope Francis who welcomed her in Rome, to countless children along the route who have seen Amal not as a foreign interloper, but as an abandoned child, perhaps even a friend.

According to Amir Nizar Zuabi, the artistic director of the project, that's the point.

"The people that look at her and start telling themselves her story are actively engaged in empathy, in compassion," he said. "And, of course, if you can do it to an object, we hope you can do it to a fellow human being."

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But can Little Amal really influence the angry anti-immigration politics playing out across Europe right now?

"I don't know," admitted Zuabi. "But it's our duty to try."

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