MILLIONS of children around the world enjoy the freedom of watching Sesame Street on TV, computers and phones. Some 5.8 million more displaced Syrian children are not that lucky as they remain stranded in squalid refugee camps. Since the conflict started eight years ago, they have been spending joyless days in the camps of Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. A staggering number of these children are tormented by past memories of violence of the war — many have witnessed the deaths of their parents, siblings and friends. Since then, these children have only known life in foreign lands as refugees. Since the beginning of the war, mental health experts have been warning that trauma and distress due to the war will cause permanent damage to these children. In some cases, the damage might be irreversible. However, many mental health experts believe that these children do not have to stop being children just because they have lost a portion of their childhood to the war. The overwhelming refugee crisis has sparked a partnership between two organisations to help children overcome the trauma of the conflict. Sesame Workshop, the creator of Sesame Street, and International Rescue Committee came up with a unique idea of producing a children’s educational show in Arabic called Ahlan Simsim, or Welcome Sesame.
The Sesame Workshop and IRC won a $100 million MacArthur Foundation award in 2017 for the plan. Two major initiatives were taken into account in implementing the project: a Sesame Street show with Arabic-speaking characters through customisation and the development of services that reach refugee children directly. They were also entrusted with the sum to solve a huge ‘global problem,’ by understanding the needs of these children through innovative ideas.
The Sesame Street puppeteers recently made trips to Jordan to set up the new Arabic production. The show with various Muppet characters is aimed at the refugee children aged between three and eight. The characters will speak in Arabic and Kurdish. The programme will provide engaging educational messages through reading, learning languages, math and valuable social skills. The show will make its debut in February 2020. IRC will expand its services and take the programme directly to the kids in camps. Satellite dishes will be arranged with the help from IRC to facilitate the service for about eight million kids in the region. The programme will also be available digitally. The enactment of the plan surely will bring some much needed joy and cheer into the lives of these children. The Arabic production will show the refugee children a different land. When the show airs, the children will have unadulterated fun in a magical land of the Muppets — away from the everyday realities of a harsh camp life. The creators of this television show know how important it is to have curiosity and how imagination plays a role in exploring a magical place. For an hour every day, the children will have unadulterated fun away from all the chaos of a camp life.
Studies have revealed that a lot of the displaced kids suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or many other forms of ‘toxic stress’ in the camps. It happens because in displaced children, the brain’s development is hampered due to ongoing adversities. Top mental health experts predict that some of these children may think of self-harm because of emotional distress. They might be encountering suicidal thoughts and other aggressive and self-destructive behaviours because of their stressful lives. Their parents are also very stressed by the difficulties of meeting the basis needs on a daily basis. Most refugee families are living in extreme poverty and three quarters below the poverty line, according to a UN study. Since fleeing Syria, the families have been living in tented settlements or converted structures made with metal. Because of limited capacity in schools of their host communities, the children don’t learn much in temporary education centres.
Less than two per cent of all the humanitarian aid goes on educating these displaced children. Language also has become a big barrier in the Turkish camps. Some of the children have never ventured outside of the camp grounds. With no freedom, no school and no learning they are stuck in campsites, not knowing if they will ever get back to their country. Unlike the other children in countries where there is no threat of war looming large on the horizon, the refugee children cannot look forward to a normal future. Several expert groups on refugee problems foresee that without hope and support to get through the hard times, these children might become a lost generation.
The fun filled educational programme Ahlan Simsim undoubtedly will capture the hearts and minds of the displaced children. The show will primarily pay attention to the issues affecting the children as refugees. While creating the show, the main collaborators of the show realised that these children are really struggling to express their emotions. They are having difficulties in dealing with the traumatic situations that the war forced them to face. The creative team of Ahlan Simsim made that the focus behind this production. They put emphasis in finding the language the children needed to express their pent up feelings. Every episode is well-thought-out from a child’s perspective.
Sesame Production has made certain changes in doing Ahlan Simsim in Arabic. The show casts two main characters: Jad, a young boy Muppet who is new to the neighbourhood, and Basma, a spunky Muppet girl. They quickly become friends. Ma’zooza, a mischievous baby goat, follows the two around everywhere they go and eats everything in sight. ‘My toy is not with me. I left it behind in my old home when I came here,’ Jad says in a clip from one of the episodes shown on 60 Minutes on November 17. It was obvious that Jad’s character, voiced by a Syrian puppeteer, is also a refugee. The purple girl Basma offers to make him a new toy drum. Together they explore the world with the help of trusted grown-ups. Classic Sesame Street characters like Elmo, Grover and Cookie Monster will make regular appearances on the show. Other US characters may also appear on the show from time to time. In each country, the Sesame Street muppets are often have their own persons, with characters, locations, themes and storylines personalised and incorporated to the region of broadcast.
Unquestionably, such a programme can boost the self-esteem of these deprived children by providing an early childhood education. Children will learn about diversity through the muppets who are different in colour, size and shape. Since the muppets are different in their role-playing, the children will accept them as friends. The creators purposefully show that children can be friendly with others who are different from them. They will not only learn the alphabets and how to count from one to ten, they will also experience joy, love, hope, faith and the power of forgiveness with these characters. The show will also bring into focus problems like fear, loneliness, anger and sadness that the children feel because of displacement. The muppets will demonstrate different breathing exercises to deal with anxiety and what to do when they are feeling overwhelmed by the memories of the conflict. The impressionable young minds will learn that under any circumstances, one needs to be positive and to accept life the way it is. The show will perhaps further help these children to look at the world in a constructive way and feel worthwhile. Children are resilient; they can overcome obstacles and bounce back from adversity.
The iconic Sesame Street, in many ways still remains as a turning point in making children think about the world they live in. The show’s emphasis is always on diversity. The programme continually uses educational contents to foster ‘intellectual and cultural development.’ Since the programme’s unveiling, it has served as an educational medium for many disadvantaged children. Sesame Workshop unfailingly filled the gap experienced by kids in an unjust society. From the get go, the creators of the show made it a point to show that different people from different races can live in the same neighbourhood.
This past November, Sesame Street celebrated its 50th anniversary. Currently, Sesame Workshop has launched this programme in 150 countries around the world. It reaches 190 million children over 160 versions in 70 languages. The show made a huge impact as it taught many children the alphabet in their native language. Sesame Street brings an active awareness of changing times — war, displacement, racism, bullying, disability and other universal problems like climate change.
Ahlan Simsim will serve as a symbol of humanitarian response in tackling early childhood education. The children will get an opportunity to learn and get nurturing care through this programme. The impetus around the Arabic show obviously changes because of the growing concerns of the refugee crisis. Sesame Production hopes to provide the kids a refuge from the daily anxieties where they can be just kids for a short time. In a stranded camp life, they have no place to go and play, and no school to attend. Most likely, they have their innocence and imagination still intact to think of a happier life beyond the restricted walls of a confined existence. War simply cannot take away everything from a child’s life. The show will also offer these kids a temporary break from the constant worries the adults around them are displaying because they do not know how to overcome an uncertain future. Despite their circumstances in a bleak camp life, the children will get a chance to grow smarter, kinder and stronger, which coincides with the mission of this wonderful programme. Along with the muppets, the displaced children can be put on a path to a much brighter and happier future.
Zeenat Khan was a special education teacher for middle school children with learning disabilities. She writes from Maryland, USA.
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