Portland celebrates its welcoming nature with ‘The Walk’ for refugee children

Portland will celebrate its refugee communities and its reputation as a welcoming city with A Message From Far Away, an art-and-culture festival that begins with a free concert at 6 p.m. Wednesday evening on the Eastern Prom and continues at 12:30 p.m. Thursday with a downtown parade from Monument Square to Ocean Gateway.

Kinan Azmeh City Band will perform in Portland on Wednesday night. Photo by Joanna Wizmur

At Ocean Gateway, the festival will culminate at 2 p.m. Thursday with a live video-link performance of “The Walk,” an ongoing international festival featuring Little Amal, a 12-foot-tall puppet of a refugee girl who represents the perilous journey of all displaced children. Little Amal is appearing across the Middle East and the United Kingdom throughout the year to call attention to the plight of refugee children and will appear on a large screen at Ocean Gateway thanks to a web of international friendships and artistic collaborations.

During her remote appearance in Portland, Little Amal will interact with refugees from Maine. The Portland festival is a group effort involving New York-based Remote Theater Project, Creative Portland, Mayo Street Arts, Greater Portland Welcoming Center and Portland Ovations.

Reza Jalali, executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, estimated that 15,000 refugees live in Maine, or about one-third of the population of new Mainers. Of those refugees, about 7,500 are children, he said. Unlike immigrants, who come to the United States by choice, refugees are displaced by war, persecution and natural disasters.

“Anything that helps to educate the larger community about the situation of refugees, and particularly refugee children, we welcome that,” said Jalali, an Iranian Kurd and himself a refugee. “They are invisible, and they are on the edge of any society they are part of. This parade and the other events, to me they celebrate the generosity and grace with which Portland has welcomed and adopted so many refugees from so many countries and helped rebuild their lives – or in my case, start their lives all over again.”

Alexandra Aron, producing artistic director of Remote Theater Project, has wanted to work in Portland for several years, since one of her board members, Dr. Julia Brock, an OB/GYN and robotic surgeon at Maine Medical Center whose patients include many new Maine residents, told Aron about Portland’s welcoming nature. “I knew Little Amal wasn’t walking anywhere near the States, but I thought there must be some way we could create a remote interaction with her,” Aron said. “Instead of doing something in New York, I thought that maybe Portland was a place I should focus on, where the impact could be a little bit greater.”

Aron connected with the artistic director of “The Walk,” the Palestinian playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi, with whom she had worked before to set up the video link, and then with Creative Portland to brainstorm ideas for a Portland festival.

Kinan Azmeh performs at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the bandstand at Fort Allen on the Eastern Prom. Photo by Luidmila Jeremeis

It begins with a free concert by Syrian-born and New York-based composer and musician Kinan Azmeh and his City Band at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the bandstand at Fort Allen Park on Portland’s Eastern Prom overlooking Casco Bay. The festival continues at 12:30 p.m. Thursday at Monument Square with “Parade with Us,” a walk in support of immigrants and refugees that will continue to Ocean Gateway for a 2 p.m. performance of “The Walk.”

As part of “The Walk,” the Pihcintu Multinational Immigrant and Refugees Girls’ Chorus will perform, along with musicians of the Portland Symphony Orchestra and Kinan Azmeh’s City Band, who will accompany new Mainers reading letters they have written about their journey.

Azmeh, a clarinetist whose music includes shades of jazz and classical, is a collaborator on Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad project and was scheduled to appear as part of Portland Ovations’ international music series, but his performance was postponed because of the pandemic.

“He is such special musician, both in terms of his musicianship and also how he has been part of a global conversation and a global community of people who are thinking about how music can bring people together,” said Aimee Petrin, executive and artistic director of Portland Ovations. “He is an artist who has been in our orbit for many years, and we are really excited about presenting him. This opportunity just seemed like an obvious, natural way to do it.”

Aron called Portland “heroic” for its efforts to make newcomers feel welcome. “What Portland has been doing for a long time now is not known enough about in the rest of the country. It’s incredible what Portland is doing in terms of opening its arms to refugees and asylum seekers. They are figuring out a way to help people settle and get what they need. I am blown away by the city.”