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Sesame Street in Syria: Early years education on the frontline

Article By: Michaela Chirgwin

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has joined forces with Sesame Street characters in a bold new initiative aimed at educating young Syrian refugees under the age of eight, in what they are calling 'the largest early childhood intervention in the history of humanitarian response'.

Tonton with little girl/ Credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill/IRC

This ambitious programme, based in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, offers play-based learning to Syrian child refugees who have witnessed traumatic wartime events. Many of these children are suffering from toxic stress and have behavioural and learning difficulties.

The recent conflict in Syria has created the biggest worldwide refugee disaster since WW2, and the IRC, which has paired up with not-for-profit organisation, Sesame Workshop, estimate that about twelve million children below the age of eight have been displaced by recent conflict.

A substantial proportion are not currently receiving any formal education.

This is something that the IRC and Sesame Workshop hope to change. David Miliband, president and chief executive of the IRC says: “Our partnership with Sesame Workshop will help transform children’s lives by making sure that their social-emotional needs are met so they are able to receive an education, contribute to their community, and succeed as adults.”

‘We fled when ISIS came. They used to punish children, so our children were afraid’

Hakmeeya lost three of her children due to the war in Syria. A year ago she finally left her home in Raqqa with the two children who had survived. She said: “We fled when ISIS came. They used to punish children, so our children were afraid.”

Amin, her four-year-old son, loves to go to pre-school, but because of the harrowing things he’s experienced during the war, he can’t concentrate. “He’s always ‘daydreaming’ and doesn’t make friends easily”, explains Hakmeeya.

Hakmeeya and her sons in Lebanon/ Credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill/IRC

The Syrian refugee crisis first erupted just after the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, and as a result, most children born in the country after this time will only have known life involving war, or escape from persecution.

The Sesame Street project aims to get families to the next stage in life, one where they are not looking over their shoulders, and where they can start thinking about the future.

One of the ways that the project aims to do this is through home visits by educational specialists. Myriam Jaafar is the education technical manager for IRC. She explains: “Our early childhood programme begins at home; whether it’s shelter or a tent, or a crowded apartment, it doesn’t matter.

“The most important thing is that the children need to be with their parents – the first caregivers with who they will build trusting relationships and learn things in order to be able to gain knowledge in the long run.”

With the home visits, teachers give parents activities to promote learning the alphabet as well as reading and counting. Parents are empowered with skills to support their child’s development, and they are encouraged to play with them, using everyday objects they can find in their homes. Ms Jaafar adds: “We show them how to communicate with their children, frequently, in a way that promotes praise.

She continues: “Most of the parents that I work with, when we first meet, describe their role as ‘shelter provider’ and ‘food provider’; for making sure that their children survive, yet, with time, they start engaging with their children, and they say ‘I used to do this in Syria, but I wasn’t able to do it anymore with my kids; thank you very much!’”

Tonton gets a cuddle. Credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill/IRC

There are also ‘child development centres’ for children to experience a classroom environment and develop through ‘age-appropriate, play-based learning’. The centre utilises customized educational content – with a new local version of Sesame Street – delivered through television, mobile phones, digital platforms and direct services.

Maysum attends one of the classes. The four-year-old has a speech impediment, and this makes it hard for her to communicate her feelings to her parents. In the IRC-run class she has learned to identify letters and numbers.

Maysum’s mother Ifthan says: "She used to be very shy and was afraid to go to school, but she enjoys it now and has made friends." Although, Ifthan adds: “She has trouble talking to her teacher and gets easily frustrated when she cannot tell us what is wrong with her."

‘If we can reach these children, we can teach these children’

It may sound like a ‘soft or ‘fuzzy’ option; bringing in Sesame Street puppets to educate war-fatigued children in bombed-out buildings in the Middle East. However, it’s the largest ever refugee education project undertaken for young children, and in December 2017 it received $100m (£75m) from the MacArthur Foundation’s 100andChange competition.

Educational projects are not usually very high on the ‘to-do’ list of humanitarian organisations, who tend to concentrate more on delivering frontline aid services such as food, medicine and shelter, but this is a humanitarian project that is responding to a very real educational need in the region.

At one of the child development centres. Credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill/IRC

Julia Stasch, president of the MacArthur Foundation said: “Less than two per cent of the global humanitarian aid budget is dedicated to education, and only a sliver of all education assistance benefits young children.”

Sesame Workshop is confident that a combination of teaching with their ‘muppets’ and knowledge garnered from their previous education projects, can deliver on the scheme’s early promise; radically changing lives for Syrian child refugees.

Muppet ‘magic’

Film actor Whoopi Goldberg, a long-time collaborator with Sesame Street, spoke of the ‘magic’ of Sesame Street ‘Muppets’ in an article with Newsweek in 2011. She said: “There’s nothing like seeing the Muppets in real life because you’re stunned. When you’re with them, your relationship is as strong to them as it is to human beings. You don’t see the Muppeteer."

This directness of communication enables educators involved in the project to reach out to young children in environments as diverse as Palestine, Jordan and South Africa.

Sesame Workshop adopts a localised approach to deliver educational programs to reach their young audience. Characters are created that fit the culture of the designated country.

Sherrie Westin is executive vice president of Global Impact and Philanthropy for Sesame Workshop. She says: “If we can reach these children, we can teach these children. By giving them the benefits of early education, Sesame Workshop and IRC can change their trajectory and afford them the chance for a successful future.

It is hoped that in addition to literacy and maths, Syrian children will develop valuable social and emotional skills that will help them overcome the trauma they have been through and help them thrive in the future.

“We are aware that these children have come from war,” says IRC teacher Amina Hussein Fneish. “They have seen things that scared them. We, as teachers, have the responsibility to boost their confidence again. We work on preparing them to face the world and achieve what they want. We always try to give them hope that they will go back to Syria and rebuild their lives again.”


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