Little Amal on campus at U of T

Little Amal, symbol of hope for refugees, visits UTM’s convocation ceremony

Shauna Rempel

There was a special guest at a University of Toronto Mississauga convocation ceremony this week: Little Amal, a 12-foot-tall puppet of a 10-year-old Syrian refugee created by puppeteers Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones to symbolize human rights.  

Kohler and Jones received honorary degrees at a UTM convocation ceremony. Before the ceremony, Amal visited her creators along with UTM Vice-President and Principal Alexandra Gillespie, U of T President Meric Gertler, Chancellor Rose Patten and other members of the academic procession outside Convocation Hall.  

Group photo of academic procession members with Little Amal and honorary degree recipients Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler
(Photo by Lisa Sakulensky)

The performance was made possible in large part thanks to Lawrence Switzky, an associate professor of English and drama at UTM, a longtime fan and supporter of Handspring Puppet Company.  

“Their art is incredibly intricate and detailed yet ceaselessly playful,” Switzky says of Kohler and Jones. “The construction of the faces in their puppets is so multifaceted that they can suggest an endless variety of moods depending on which way the puppet is turned.” 

The pair’s Handspring Puppet Company theatrical productions have raised awareness of political and social issues among audiences in more than two dozen other countries, including their native South Africa. The Little Amal character has struck a particular chord with audiences who encounter her during outdoor performances, Kohler notes.  

“She’s clearly a construction,” he said during an honorary degree address to students. “Yet children constantly want to be touched by her and adults bring her flowers, handing them to her whilst looking deep into her resin eyes.” 

Since her creation in 2021, she has become a global symbol of compassion, hope and human rights, especially for refugees and displaced people everywhere.  

Although the puppet didn’t enter the hall with Kohler and Jones, Amal did receive her own mortarboard near the steps to Simcoe Hall. The graduation hat was specially made for the occasion by UTM alumna Ashley Katryna Regimbal-Kung.  

Crowds watched in wonder as Amal and her handlers explored the paved area around King’s College Circle to the accompaniment of a daf, a Persian frame drum. She interacted with two children from a Syrian refugee family whom University of Toronto faculty members sponsored

In an impromptu moment, Amal briefly held a Ukrainian flag offered up by an onlooker. Her visit to the St. George campus concluded as she danced with puppets representing the sun and the moon, as a brass band played the Bee Gees classic “Stayin’ Alive.”  

Amal continues her tour of the Toronto area as part of Luminato Festival programming. 

Little Amal on campus at U of T
(Photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)