Oxford Human Rights Planning Committee member and CENDEP postgraduate student Victoria Greenwood shares her reflections on the UK Nationality and Borders Bill and Little Amal’s visit to the ‘dreaming spires’ of Oxford.

Elizabeth Laskar, Festival Coordinator writes:

The reflection below has been written by MA student Victoria Greenwood after the visit of a giant puppet called ‘Amal’, who visited Oxford on Tuesday 26 October 2021. The historic city was packed with people from all generations and backgrounds, all following Amal from street to street – everyone wanted a glimpse of her. The spectacle was more than just a puppet show: it was powerful in that her presence and movements embodied not only her story but the story of all displaced children and the inequalities within the city of Oxford and the institutions it holds. It was moving and deeply thought provoking.

As we plan to celebrate our 20th festival in 2022 it’s a timely piece to help ‘kick off’ the discourse on the festival theme of ‘movement’ and human rights.

Victoria Greenwood writes:

As part of my voluntary work with Asylum Welcome, we brought a group of Afghan refugees from their temporary hotel accommodation to welcome the puppet Little Amal to Oxford. We watched her meet Alice in Wonderland and start their adventure together in the Botanical Gardens and then unfold through Oxford’s cobbled streets and dreaming spires.

For those who have not heard of Little Amal, she is a 3.5 metre puppet representing a girl refugee travelling alone in search of her mother. She started her 8,000km journey a few miles from the Syrian border in July, has crossed eight countries and met thousands of people including the Pope. She walked into Oxford in late October, and her presence brought with it a spotlight on the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, particularly unaccompanied children making terrifying journeys.

Bringing together the hardship of Amal and the privilege of Alice in Wonderland in the setting of Oxford raises many questions and prompts us to check the reflection in our own looking glass. As Amal peered into colleges from the Porter’s Lodge entrances and took in the wealth, advantage and power of Oxford, the inequalities were laid bare for anyone to see. In a world where colonial histories have set the stage, a passport dictates access to freedoms and life chances policed by hostile and violent border controls dictating who can cross freely whilst others are kept out.

Silent Amal, standing tall, managed to shout this out.

In the UK right now the Borders Bill is approaching its third reading in the House of Commons. This bill judges a person’s right to refugee protection according to how they arrive in the UK, not on their need or the level of danger they face. This harsh treatment of those forced to flee also potentially increases risks faced by unaccompanied minors, like Little Amal, such as child trafficking and sexual exploitation. Amal’s reality is a living nightmare, not a fictional dream from which she can wake up.

Her visit to Oxford was hugely emotional, and she continues on and alone in search of sanctuary and safety. Much can be done to secure meaningful change for thousands of others like her. Asylum Welcome and other organisations are calling for a kinder, fairer, and more effective approach to supporting refugees in the UK and oppose the Borders Bill. We who live in comfort must not forget Amal, and can actively campaign, challenge, protest and call out this inhuman treatment of our fellow human beings.

The Afghan families enjoyed their visit to see Amal, but more importantly needed to eat, find a place to pray and space for the children to play. Life goes on for them yet the process to rebuild is still to begin, and despite having lost everything these families are the lucky ones. For the millions of human beings forcibly displaced globally owing to war, regime change, poverty, climate change, can we not welcome all who arrive not on the basis of how they arrived, but because they have arrived? Surely everyone is worthy of the dignity, respect and friendship that Oxford showed to Amal yesterday.

Elizabeth Laskar writes:

Victoria’s words give testimony to how the ancient art of puppeteering can have a valuable role to play in the telling of stories today. The Amal project states that it is ‘a travelling festival of art and hope in support of refugees’ and all displaced children. The tall puppet has been able to capture the imagination of individuals of all ages and instigate the much needed conversations around dignity and refugees around the globe. It was overwhelmingly clear that the ‘arts’ can conjure up emotions, help us understand complex thoughts and ideas and to bring change for good.

Amal’s journey in Oxford ended in the famous Christ Church Meadows, often associated with the famous book Alice in Wonderland. The author was a student and lecturer at the University of Oxford at Christ Church College. The crowds enjoyed traditional Syrian food, dance and music. It was deeply moving to experience both sadness and joy as people continued to share the space. ‘Amal’ in Arabic means ‘hope’ – and this is the sentiment the artistic endeavour left behind in Oxford.

The Story Museum led the production and brought Little Amal Meets Alice to Oxford, together with the Good Chance and The Walk.

Photos taken by Pedro Dieguez: Volunteer Photographer at Asylum Welcome.

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