Conflicts across the Middle East have had a tremendously adverse effect on children, the most vulnerable members of the population. With the Syrian civil war now in its seventh year and the Iraqi territories retaken from the Islamic State still unstable, millions of children in refugee camps have had to spend their early years dealing with the dire consequences of war.
But the American nonprofit behind the popular children’s show Sesame Street, 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.
In an interview with VOA, Sesame Workshop’s senior vice president for international social impact, Shari Rosenfeld, said her organization was teaming up with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to provide early education to help children and families overcome the trauma of conflict.
“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,” she said.
In December 2017, the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change program — a competition for funds to support a program 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.
Rosenfeld said the program would introduce a localized version of Sesame Street to provide engaging educational messages covering reading, languages, math and social skills.
Instead of using popular character names such as Elmo, Big Bird and Cookie Monster, the puppets will have regional names and will speak Arabic and Kurdish.
“Not only will our content be made available through traditional television broadcast, but it will also be available on digital platforms like WhatsApp,” she said.
The program also will directly support children and parents at learning centers equipped with material for play-based learning, she added. Its 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 3.
“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.
The U.N.’s children agency, 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.
Iraqi officials have expressed concerns, particularly about children who were schooled by IS. Counterterrorism officials have listed about 2,000 children needing therapy after having been influenced or brainwashed by IS.
Rights organizations 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 2 percent is reserved for education or child development.
Rosenfeld of Sesame Workshop said the organization’s project would meet the children’s needs to recover from violence and extremism by emphasizing critical issues, such as mutual respect and understanding, diversity and inclusion, and gender equity.
If the program is successful in achieving those goals, the organization would try to expand it for other crises.
Sesame Workshop has created local versions in several conflict-torn areas, such as Afghanistan, Nigeria, the Palestinian territories, Israel and Kosovo.
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 program features a vibrant hijab-clad female role model called Zari, a 6-year-old Muppet who loves going to school and has big dreams for her future.
An impact assessment by the organization showed that children who watch Baghch-e-Simsim test 29 percent higher in believing in girls’ and boys’ equal ability to do various tasks compared with their peers who did not watch the show.
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 counterterrorism tool.
Countering Boko Haram
Naomi Moland, a lecturer at American University in Washington who studies the Nigerian version of Sesame Street, said the program producers tried to indirectly combat Boko Haram in northern Nigeria.
The terror group, whose name loosely translates as “Western education is forbidden,” has abducted hundreds of girls for going to secular schools.
“As far as gender equality, especially in regions where Boko Haram is active, even saying that girls should go to school is a counterterrorism message, because Boko Haram has fought against it,” Moland told VOA.
She said the creators of the localized show, called Sesame Square, feared being targeted by Boko Haram or having their show boycotted.
“They would say things like, ‘If we do one thing wrong, nobody in northern Nigeria is going to watch this because a certain extremist imam might say the show is not appropriate,’ ” she added.
Her forthcoming book, Can Big Bird Fight Terrorism? Children’s Television as Soft Power in Nigeria, concludes the creators faced other dilemmas, such as celebrating diversity without exacerbating divisions and stereotypes of others, and localizing the show to reflect children’s reality.
“I think that is a difficult challenge that Sesame will face in this new program with Syrian refugees — that is, how do you present something that seems somewhat realistic to the children in that it connects their experiences of trauma and displacement while also giving them hope that something could be different and they might be able to get along with people who are different from them?” asked Moland.