Muppets Bring Middle East Version of ‘Sesame Street’ to Refugee Children

24 April, 2018

Conflicts across the Middle East have had a major effect on children.

Millions of boys and girls now live in refugee camps after escaping fighting in places such as Syria and northern Iraq. They have had to spend their early years dealing with the terrible effects of war.

An American non-profit organization, called Sesame Workshop, is trying to help these refugees. The group is sending its lovable Muppets to the Middle East to help bring laughter and build strength in the affected children.

Shari Rosenfeld works for Sesame Workshop, which produces the children's television show Sesame Street.

She says her group is working with the International Rescue Committee to provide early education to help children and families overcome the trauma of conflict. She told VOA about "a new educational broadcast that will reach 9.4 million children across Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria." Rosenfeld also spoke about plans for direct, in-person services for 1.5 million of the children most in need of help.

In December 2017, Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee received a donation of $100 million to pay for the project. The money came from the MacArthur Foundation's 100&Change program.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is one of the largest private foundations in the U.S. The 100&Change program was set up to support activities that promise measurable progress in solving a problem.

Rosenfeld said the donation will pay for a Middle East version of Sesame Street. She said the goal is to provide appealing, educational messages about reading, mathematics, languages and social skills.

Students watch
Students watch "Sesame Square" with their teacher in a school in Ijebu-Lekki, Nigeria, February 2012.

Character customization

Many Americans have no problem recognizing Elmo, Big Bird and other stars of Sesame Street. But these characters will have different names in the new show. They will have Arabic or Kurdish names and will speak those languages.

Rosenfeld said the shows will be made available through traditional television and on computer software programs like WhatsApp.

The Sesame Workshop project also will support children and parents at learning centers with material for play-based learning, she added. Its trained workers will give home visitation and caregiving classes to nearly 800,000 caregivers to help lessen the effects of trauma on children up to age 3.

A condition known as "toxic stress" happens when a child's brain development is affected by prolonged hardship. It can lead to problems such as self-harm, aggressive behavior and suicide attempts.

The rights group Save the Children reported last year that millions of Syrian children may now suffer from toxic stress. It said these boys and girls need help to keep the damage from becoming permanent.

The United Nations' children's agency (UNICEF) estimates that 1.75 million Syrian children are not in school. It reported that 2.6 million Syrian children are refugees or are on the run for their safety.

In neighboring Iraq, UNICEF said, more than 1 million children lost their homes and 4 million are in need of aid because of fighting with the Islamic State (IS) group.

In this Monday, July 10, 2017 photo, Sesame Street's new Afghan character, a 4-year-old Afghan puppet boy called Zeerak, is seen during a recoding a segment for Afghan version of Sesame Street called Baghch-e-Simsim
In this Monday, July 10, 2017 photo, Sesame Street's new Afghan character, a 4-year-old Afghan puppet boy called Zeerak, is seen during a recoding a segment for Afghan version of Sesame Street called Baghch-e-Simsim

Affected children

Iraqi officials said they are concerned about children who went to IS schools. Anti-terrorism officials have listed about 2,000 children that need mental health services after having been influenced or brainwashed by the group's supporters.

Rights organizations say most children affected by extreme violence do not receive education and mental health services.

The International Rescue Committee estimates that only about two percent of all humanitarian aid is spent on education or child development.

Rosenfeld of Sesame Workshop said the group's project would help the children by showing understanding, respect, inclusion and diversity, among other social skills.

If the program is successful, the organization may try to expand it for other crises.

Sesame Workshop has created local versions of Sesame Street in other areas, such as Afghanistan, Nigeria, the Palestinian territories, Israel and Kosovo.

I'm Susan Shand.

Rikar Hussein reported this story for VOA News. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

Muppet - n. a doll, or plaything, that moves by putting one's hand inside it or by pulling wires that are connected to it

trauma n. a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have a mental or emotional problem, usually for a long time

toxic adj. harmful or poisonous

stress n. something that causes strong feelings of worry or concern

brainwashv. to cause (someone) to think or believe something by using methods that make a person unable to think normally

diversity n. the state of having people who are different races or who have different cultures in a group or organization

character – n. a person in a story or play

foundation – n. an organization set up to provide money

workshop – n. educational program