By Lucy Nuttall ’21
Since its founding in 1969, Sesame Workshop has been at the forefront of children’s education and has adapted to the changing social and political climates of the world. The non-profit has featured episodes on autism, racism, divorce, fighting and many issues to introduce hard-to-understand topics to young children. The result has been an ever-changing progressive television series that plays an invaluable role in the lives of so many children worldwide.
Since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, over 5 million children have been displaced, with over 2.8 million still currently out of school. Recognizing this and understanding the importance of early education, the Sesame Workshop teamed up with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) as well as educators from Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan in 2016. The IRC has been working to help refugees establish a sense of normalcy and restart their lives after traumatic conflicts. Together, Sesame Workshop and the IRC have created a television show airing in twenty countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
By using Sesame’s formula for children’s education, the collaborators came up with their new show: Alam Simsim (Welcome Sesame). The title embodies the show’s principles: helping children cope with displacement as they try to understand their new reality. Though unlike the American Sesame Street most are familiar with, Alam Simsim focuses on how to express emotions rather than teaching kids how to count and language skills.
When refugee children are displaced, they lose their sense of community and there is often an overwhelming sense of uncertainty about the permanence of their new normal. After having their lives swept out from under them for reasons that they do not understand, children struggle to demonstrate or understand the complexities of their emotions. Alam Simsim not only teaches them how to express emotion but also gives concrete examples of what actions to take in situations of such despair. For example, a main focus on the show is belly breathing. The characters take time to explain when to breathe in and out, and how belly breathing can slow down your heartbeat and reduce stress.
In addition to Alam Simsim, the IRC and Sesame Workshop are sending thousands of workers into clinics and communities to help ease the transition and carry out the show’s goals. These workers exemplify the show’s principles by doing activities and games with refugee children. By combining these two actions, the partnership hopes to make a large difference in the area.
Although the show features many familiar characters such as Elmo, Grover and Cookie Monster, its creators have also created three new characters specifically for Alam Simsim: Basma, Jad, and Ma’zooza. Basma is an outgoing young girl whose name means smile in Arabic. Jad is a young boy who is generous but quieter. He recently left his old home and moved into Basma’s neighborhood. Though it is never explicitly stated in the show, Jad is a refugee. He speaks of circumstances that relate closely to those of the children watching—leaving his old home and not being able to bring any of his toys with him. The pair is joined by a baby goat, Ma’zooza, who provides comedic relief. The two main characters model different behaviors and reactions to new situations that the creators hope children facing similar conditions will be able to relate to.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the program has had to adapt to stay safe. Refugee camps and communities—Alam Simsim’s general audience—have been some of the hardest-hit groups in the world during the Coronavirus. In response, Sesame is continuing to air the show, but in-person visits have stopped for safety precautions. The IRC and Sesame Workshop have designed new ways to help children during another uncertain time by using short videos and activities that can be used to teach children. The group realized that the best way to help children is to reach caregivers and teach them to manage their stress and maintain a normal routine. This adaptation emphasizes Sesame Workshop’s ability to overcome challenges and still recognize the necessity of children’s education and emotional needs especially during trying times.
Sesame Workshop expects Alam Simsim to reach over 9 million children in the Middle East and North Africa in coming years. They hope to use Alam Simsim as a foundation on which they will expand and help more refugee children in the area facing challenging and confusing situations.