Sesame Street Muppet's go to Syria to help war affected children

The conflict has had an immensely adverse effect on children, the most vulnerable members of the population


News Desk April 12, 2018
Characters from Sesame Street. PHOTO: VOICE OF AMERICA

Civilians in Syria marked the latest grim chapter in fighting that entered its seventh year in March last month. The conflict has had an immensely adverse effect on children, the most vulnerable members of the population reported Voice of America.

The battle, which began as a peaceful uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime escalated into a full-scale civil war that is now one of this century's deadliest. Millions of children in refugee camps have had to spend their early years dealing with the dire consequences of this war.

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Last year an American nonprofit, Sesame Workshop, behind the much-loved children's TV show Sesame Street and the global humanitarian aid organisation International Rescue Committee (IRC) partnered to focus on bringing educational programming and a humanitarian response for the youngest refugees and children displaced by war and conflict in the Middle East.

In an interview with VOA, Sesame Workshop's senior vice president for international social impact, Shari Rosenfeld, said her organisation was teaming up with the International Rescue Committee to provide early education to help children and families overcome the trauma of conflict.

Sesame Workshop says it is sending its lovable and furry Muppets to these countries to help bring laughter and build resilience in the affected kids.

More families are uprooted today by conflict than during any time since World War II. The IRC and Sesame Workshop will work together to develop engaging educational content starring the lovable Muppet's that can reach children in refugee camps like this one in Jordan -- or wherever they are living -- through TV, radio, mobile phones and other channels. PHOTO: IRC More families are uprooted today by conflict than during any time since World War II. The IRC and Sesame Workshop will work together to develop engaging educational content starring the lovable Muppet's that can reach children in refugee camps like this one in Jordan -- or wherever they are living -- through TV, radio, mobile phones and other channels. PHOTO: IRC

"We will deliver this in two ways: direct, in-person services for 1.5 million of the most vulnerable children, as well as a new educational broadcast that will reach 9.4 million children across Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria," Rosenfeld said.

In December 2017, the MacArthur Foundation's 100&Change programme — a competition for funds to support a programme that promises measurable progress in solving a critical contemporary problem — awarded Sesame Workshop and the IRC a grant of $100 million to help implement the project, said VOA.

Rosenfeld said “the programme would introduce a localised version of Sesame Street to provide engaging educational messages covering reading, languages, math and social skills.”

Big Bird character from Sesame Street. PHOTO: REUTERS Big Bird character from Sesame Street. PHOTO: REUTERS

The Muppet's will be heading to Syria and put into the service of supporting refugee children with popular characters such as Elmo, Big Bird and Cookie Monster speaking Arabic and Kurdish as well as adopting regional names.

"Not only will our content be made available through traditional television broadcast, but it will also be available on digital platforms like WhatsApp," Rosenfeld said.

“The programme will also directly support children and parents at learning centers equipped with material for play-based learning. It’s trained workers will give home visitation and caregiving sessions to nearly 800,000 caregivers to mitigate the impact of toxic stress on children up to age three,” she added.

"Toxic stress" occurs when a child's brain development is disrupted because of prolonged adversity and leads to problems such as self-harm, suicide attempts and aggressive behavior.

Save the Children, a children's rights and relief NGO, last year found that millions of Syrian children exposed to war could now suffer from "toxic stress" and needed immediate help to keep the damage from becoming irreversible.

Children in a refugee camp with Elmo from Sesame Street. PHOTO: MEDIUM Children in a refugee camp with Elmo from Sesame Street. PHOTO: MEDIUM

The UN's children agencies, UNICEF, estimates that 1.75 million Syrian children remain out of school and that 2.6 million Syrian children are living as refugees or are on the run for their safety.

In neighboring Iraq, the agency says, more than 1 million children have been displaced and 4 million are in need of assistance as a result of the war with the Islamic State group, stated the VOA article.

Iraqi officials have expressed concerns, particularly about children who were schooled by Islamic State. Counterterrorism officials have listed about 2,000 children needing therapy after having been influenced or brainwashed by IS.

Family watching Sesame Street. PHOTO: SESAME INTERNATIONAL Family watching Sesame Street. PHOTO: SESAME INTERNATIONAL

Rights organisations say a majority of children affected by extreme violence do not receive proper education and rehabilitation. The IRC estimates that of the billions of dollars spent on humanitarian aid, only about two per cent is reserved for education or child development.

Rosenfeld said, “the organisation's project would meet the children’s needs to recover from violence and extremism by emphasising critical issues, such as mutual respect and understanding, diversity and inclusion, and gender equity.”

VOA said, Sesame Workshop has created local versions in several conflict-torn areas, such as Afghanistan, Nigeria, the Palestinian territories, Israel and Kosovo.

While the grant from the MacArthur Foundation's 100&Change programme has created the first Sesame Street expansion with the IRC to be focused on refugees, Sesame Workshop has created local versions.

In rural Afghanistan, where women's rights are sharply restricted, particularly by extremist groups like the Taliban, the local version of Sesame Street, known as Baghch-e-Simsim, has targeted girls' empowerment. The programme features a vibrant hijab-clad female role model called Zari, a six-year-old Muppet who loves going to school and has big dreams for her future.

An impact assessment by the organisation showed that children who watch Baghch-e-Simsim test 29 per cent higher in believing in girls' and boys' equal ability to do various tasks compared with their peers who did not watch the show.

Sesame Workshop also broadcasts Iftah Ya Simsim, which translates as Open Sesame, in Jordan, Egypt, the Palestinian territories, Israel and Turkey.

Cast of Iftah Ya Simsim on the set. PHOTO: FACEBOOK Cast of Iftah Ya Simsim on the set. PHOTO: FACEBOOK

In another assessment, Israeli and Palestinian children who watched the show were more likely to take someone else's perspective and express the need for the use of dialogue to solve a problem.

Some experts say that by providing education for children and promoting messages of tolerance, the program also could be used as an effective counter-terrorism tool.

This article first appeared on Voice of America

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