When conflict erupted in Syria, millions were forced to uproot their entire lives and flee their homes. In the immediate aftermath, foreign governments and aid organizations scrambled to deliver necessities like food and shelter to starving families massed together in makeshift camps throughout the region. Now, years on, most refugees remain in camps, living in extreme poverty as aid groups are forced to confront a new reality – one where providers must consider refugees’ long-term needs, beyond just where they will get their next meal.
This is especially important for the millions of children – some as old as six or seven – who have grown up only knowing life on the inside of these camps. To them, the typical social and home structure for a “normal” childhood doesn’t exist. Their parents, if both are present, may not have jobs. They have limited food and barely adequate shelter, and the few things their family could take when they fled their home probably don’t include many toys.
For the International Rescue Committee (IRC), an international aid organization working with refugees across the Middle East, this poses a significant problem: with the conflict far from over, and these children likely to be displaced for years to come, how do you create an environment that provides for their well-being, while also giving them the space to just be kids?
That’s where a familiar place comes in – Sesame Street. Through a partnership with IRC and with support from the Lego Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, the experts at Sesame Workshop have debuted Ahlan Simsim, or “Welcome Sesame;” a new television show created for refugee children in the Middle East and North Africa.
At first glance, the show’s format seems familiar – colorful puppets play and talk with young children about important social and emotional skills – but a closer look reveals what makes Ahlan Simsim different. As with every Sesame Street show, the curriculum was shaped from scratch by a regional team of early childhood educators, linguists, psychologists, and art therapists with the particular needs of these children in mind. And for these kids, “normal” is anything but.
Children need to be able to see themselves and their situation reflected in the show – a complicated task when making television for refugees. But for Sherrie Westin, President of Social Impact & Philanthropy at Sesame Workshop, it’s necessary: “We know that when children can see themselves, identify with these characters and when they can relate to the story lines, we are the most effective.”
Enter Basma, a charismatic blue monster who befriends a reserved yellow monster named Jad. Because Jad had to leave his toys behind when he left his home, Basma shares hers with him as the duo explores how to deal with emotions like fear, loneliness, and frustration. Along with a baby goat named Ma’zooza, Basma and Jad help young viewers develop their “emotional ABCs” so they can overcome challenges in real life. And as always, favorite characters like Elmo and Cookie Monster will also be there for laughs and lessons along the way.
To the IRC and Sesame Workshop, Ahlan Simsim isn’t just a show – it’s a vital piece of humanitarian assistance. “We want this project to be a model for humanitarian response not just in the Middle East, but for refugee children wherever they may be,” said Westin. Between broadcast on television, phones, and in-person visits to classrooms, the project is estimated to impact an audience of millions across the Middle East and North Africa – directed not just at refugee children, but their neighbors, too.
Sesame Workshop estimates that audience makes Ahlan Simsim the “largest early-childhood intervention in the history of humanitarian response.” And they’re gathering data to inform future humanitarian efforts around the world.
But beyond data, this project is about building the emotional connections that kids have with themselves, their friends, and their community.
“As I watched Basma and Jad that first day in the studio, I thought of all the young kids across the region who also have so much learning and growing ahead of them,” said Scott Cameron, Executive Producer for the show. “That’s what Ahlan Simsim is all about: helping children learn, feel more connected…and giving them a reason to smile.”