Sesame Street producers bring popular show to displaced children in the Arab region


For over 50 years, the characters of Sesame Street, from Cookie Monster to Big Bird, have helped children from different backgrounds navigate the challenges of life as a small person in a big world.

Sesame Street also has the experience and expertise to deal with difficult issues facing children and this is what they bring to the Arab world starting this week when they launched their new show.

Titled Ahlan Simsim (“Welcome Sesame” in Arabic), the show will premiere on regional children’s television as well as on YouTube. It is especially created for the displaced and traumatised refugee children living in Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon.

The show is part of a major humanitarian programme designed to bring play and laughter to children suffering long term displacement as the Syrian war continues to create new refugees daily.

Scott Cameron, executive producer at Sesame Workshop, told the Guardian that the team worked with educational experts and psychologists across the region.

“There will be content in there that is particularly relevant to refugee children, but we wanted to identify story lines that will appeal to all children. All of our advisors recommended identifying and managing emotions. Unless you create a strong foundation to talk about how you are feeling, and how to identify emotions like anger and sadness, then it’s difficult to deal with other crucial goals like how to understand others perspectives,” said Cameron.

The show will focus on identifying and managing emotions, and is part of a wider child-centred intervention, with thousands of outreach workers going to clinics, community centres, homes and other gathering spaces in the four countries to work on the lessons discussed in the programmes.

Ahlan Simsim follows five-year-old Muppet best friends Basma and Jad and a friendly goat called Ma’zooza as they experience and discuss troubling emotions. Each time, Basma and Jad learn to manage their feelings by using strategies such as counting to five, belly breathing, and expression through art.

The second half of each episode is a variety show segment, when real kids and celebrity guests join the characters to play games and sing songs that reinforce the episode’s educational content.

“So we looked at how to help children aged three to eight deals with emotions. For example, when looking at fear we have an episode where Basma is scared of the dark. That is a good way to talk about being afraid because so many children are scared of the dark.”

There are plans to use the work and the puppets to do far-reaching work in communities across the Middle East. But Cameron emphasises that play must underpin all the work done for these vulnerable children.

“It is our job to educate, but it’s also our job to bring joy and laughter. All of the research shows that play helps develop emotional resilience as well as educational attainment,” he said.

Marianne Stone, programme director at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which has partnered with Sesame Workshop to run the programme, said the show is urgently needed to help children who are suffering during a key stage in their development.

“Children who suffer the daily effects of violence and neglect are at high risk for experiencing toxic stress, a disruption of neurological and biological processes due to severe, prolonged stress and the absence of nurturing care,” Stone explained.

Since Syria erupted into conflict in 2011, more than 5 million children have become refugees, with huge numbers living in camps across neighbouring countries. There are massive gaps in the provision of both early years support and education for these children, many of whom are suffering the traumatic effects of witnessing extreme violence.

Sesame Street is known for helping children deal with the varied problems of childhood through onscreen characters and storylines.

Sesame Street has had a presence in the Middle East for 40 years, with local Egyptian, Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli versions of Sesame Street.

Produced in Amman by Jordan Pioneers, the new Ahlan Simsim show is brought to life by a team of writers, producers, and performers from across the region. (Source: The Guardian)