Sesame Street Is Headed to the Middle East to Help Syrian Refugee Children Cope

Screenshot: PBS

Despite Sesame Street’s deeply controversial impending move to premium cable, it blessedly appears Big Bird & Co. aren’t abandoning their mission to help children across the economic divide. In fact, on Sunday night, Sesame Workshop announced a new television program aimed at helping young children displaced by the ongoing Syrian civil war.

60 Minutes reports that the non-profit behind Sesame Street is teaming up with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to launch their new Arabic-language program, as part of a $100 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation. NGOs working with refugees often have limited resources when it comes to educating and emotionally supporting young children coping with the trauma of displacement. But the grant allows Sesame Workshop and the IRC to put together a two-prong initiative, which includes the production of Ahlan Simsim, or “Welcome Sesame,” which will use new, local Muppet characters to help teach coping strategies to children.

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60 Minutes’s Lesley Stahl caught some of the new program:

Basma, the new female Muppet created for “Welcome Sesame,” explained belly breathing to Stahl. “You put your hand on your tummy, then you take a deep breath, and breathe out,” Basma demonstrated. Experts hope that when children utilize this practice in real life, it will help quell fears and make painful moments more tolerable. As the plush purple Muppet Basma explains, “This makes you feel relaxed… it helped me feel a little better.”

Stahl went on to explain the larger purpose of the exercise. “You can feel loneliness, you can feel sadness,” she said, “you’re not alone.” The deep breaths Basma demonstrated are a reminder to children going through sometimes unimaginable challenges that, in Stahl’s words, “you’re not on an island by yourself. We’re all in this.”

The show also introduces a new refugee character, Jad, who will help displaced children identify the sadness, fear, and other emotions they might be struggling with, in addition to providing them with actionable ways to confront and alleviate them.

Starting in February, Sesame Workshop plans to air the show in 20 countries in the Middle East, the Gulf, and North Africa. Meanwhile, the IRC is ramping up direct efforts to reach out to and work with young children in refugee camps, opening up childhood centers and supplying the camps with books and other supplemental programs featuring the Ahlan Simsim characters, so children have the opportunity to discuss and analyze their reactions to the show with aid workers.

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