“Sesame Street” and the International Rescue Committee have collaborated in efforts to help Syrian refugee children. A new program called “AhlanSimsim” is set to air in February 2020.
Quite often I think about what kind of trauma and distress the Syrian refugee children are going through in the camps of Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. I am specifically talking about the staggering 5.8 million displaced children since the conflict started eight years ago. A lot 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.They have been living in tented settlements or converted structures made with metal.Because of limited capacity in schools of their host communities, they don’t learn much in temporary education centers. Less than 2% 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 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.Without hope and support to get through the hard times these children might become a lost generation.
As I am drafting this piece in the afternoon, through my dining room window I can see a school bus full of children returning home. Several schools let out early because of Thanksgiving. Most of these kids do not suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or any other form of “toxic stress” like many Syrian children in the camps do on a daily basis. Tomorrow, at Thanksgiving dinner my neighbor’s children and millions more in the country will give thanks for the things they are thankful for. The refugee children will have to be content with the food that their parents will cook from their meager supply. They will not have the luxury of sitting at a big table with special food laid out in front of them from one end to the other. Their parents are very stressed by the difficulties they face in meeting the most daily basic needs for their families.
Since the beginning of the war, mental health experts are warning that trauma and distress due to the war will cause permanent damage to these children. In some cases the damage will be irreversible even though children are resilient. Many child mental health experts believe these children do not have to stop being children just because they have lost a portion of their childhood because of the war.
In line with this kind of thinking,Sesame Workshop, creator of “Sesame Street” and International Rescue Committee (IRC, a refugee assistance organization) came up with a unique idea of producing a show in Arabic called “Ahlan Simsim,”or “Welcome Sesame.”The show with various Muppet characters is aimed at Syrian refugee children age 3-8.The children will not only learn the alphabets and how to count. The show will bring into focus the problems like fear, loneliness, anger and sadness they feel because of displacement. The Muppets will show different breathing exercises to deal with anxiety and what to do when they are feeling overwhelmed by the memories of the conflict.
The two organizations won a “$100 million MacArthur Foundation award in 2017 for the plan, which involved two major initiatives: a “Sesame Street” show with Arabic-speaking characters and the development of services that reach refugee children directly.” They were entrusted with the sum to solve a huge “global problem.” The Sesame Street puppeteers recently made trips to Jordan to set up the new Arabic production. The IRC will expand its services and take the program directly to the kids in camps. Satellite dishes are going to be put up with help from IRC to facilitate the service for about eight million kids in the region. The show will make its debut in February, 2020, to bring the world to the refugee children in their makeshift homes.The program will also be available digitally. “Ahlan Simsim” will show the displaced kids a different land where children are playing and there is no war.
Undoubtedly, such an iconic program which runs for half an hour in the morning with a repeat broadcast in the afternoon will capture the hearts and minds of the displaced children.In creating the show, the main collaborators of the program realized that the refugee children were really struggling to express their emotions. They are having difficulties in dealing with traumatic situations that the war forced them to face. The creative team of “Ahlan Simsim” made that the focus behind this Arabic production. Therefore, they put emphasis to find the language the children needed to express their pent up feelings. 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.
The Sesame Production hopes to provide the kids a refuge from the daily anxieties and 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. But most likely they still have their innocence and imagination to think of a happy life beyond the restricted walls of a confined existence. War cannot take away everything from a child’s life. Thenew show will also offer them a temporary break from the constant worries the adults around them are displaying because they do not know how to overcome an uncertain future.
Such a program can most certainly boost the self-esteem of these deprived children. The Muppets are diverse in their role playing; the children will accept them as friends. They will not only learn the alphabets and how to count from one to ten –alongside these characters they will also experience joy, love, hope,faith and the power of forgiveness. They will learn how to be caring by making the best of a given situation. Their impressionable young minds will learn that under any circumstances, one needs to be positive and how 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.
Sesame Production has made certain changes in doing “Ahlan Simsim” in Arabic. “The show stars two main characters: Jad, a young boy Muppet who is new to the neighborhood, and Basma, a Muppet girl who happily befriends him. Ma’zooza, a baby goat, follows the two around wherever they go.” “My toy is not with me. I left it behind in my old home when I came here,” “Jad says in aclip from one of the episodes shown on ‘60 Minutes,’ hinting that the character (who is voiced by a Syrian puppeteer) is also a refugee.” The energetic purple Muppet girl Basma offers to make him a new toy drum that he no longer has. Classic Sesame Street characters like Elmo, Grover and Cookie Monster will make regular appearances on the show. Other U.S. born characters may act on the show from time to time. In each country, the Muppets are often their own persons, with characters, locations, themes and story lines personalized and incorporated to the region of broadcast.
This November the groundbreaking children’s show “Sesame Street” celebrates its 50th anniversary. Currently, Sesame Workshop has launched this program in 150 countries around the world. It reaches 150 million children across the globe. The show made a huge impact as it taught many children the alphabet in their native language. The show brings an active awareness of changing times because of war, climate change and other global problems as well.
The iconic “Sesame Street”, in many ways still remains as a turning point in making children think about the world they live in. The program always uses educational contents to foster “intellectual and cultural development.” Since the program’s unveiling, it has served as an educational medium for many disadvantaged children. Sesame Workshop stepped in to fill the deficits experienced by kids in an unjust society. From the get go, the creators of the show made it a point of showing that different people from different races can live in the same neighborhood.
I end this column on a personal note. In the late eighties, as an only child growing up in Norther Virginia,my daughter Noor had ample fun watching “Sesame Street” on television. The characters became her imaginary friends after she came back from preschool. On her third birthday, we bought her a big color TV setto watch “Sesame Street.”It was one of the best investments that we ever made to nurture our child’s imagination. The many valuable teachings that she learned from watching programs like Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood shaped her in many ways. The important life lessons she learned from watching the Muppet shows are plentiful. Some of these things are:it is okay to be different, it is okay to eat ethnic food during lunchtime, and it is okay to say personal prayers with hands cupped and palms at chest level. The all-time favorite TV show “Sesame Street,”undeniably formed her perception about the way she sees the world. She learned early on that the world is a diverse place. She lives by the timeless principles that one needs to be kind and respectful of people from different economic groups, backgrounds, ethnicities and religions.
Zeenat Khan was a special education teacher at Our Lady of Victory in Washington DC. Shewrites from Maryland, USA.