US grant to create Sesame Street for Syrian refugees

Syrian children play as they sit on the tip of an abandoned missile at the Ash'ari camp for the displaced in the rebel-held Ghouta area outside Damascus, on Oct 25, 2017.
Syrian children play as they sit on the tip of an abandoned missile at the Ash'ari camp for the displaced in the rebel-held Ghouta area outside Damascus, on Oct 25, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTimes) - The MacArthur Foundation said on Wednesday (Dec 20) it was awarding US$100 million (S$134 million) to Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee to create early childhood development programs for Syrian refugees. It will focus on displaced children in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, seeking to reach them at a key time for brain development.

"If we're not giving them the tools to overcome toxic stress, that trauma in those early years, the research shows the repercussions are lifelong," said Ms Sherrie Westin, Sesame's executive vice president for global impact, in an interview on Thursday (Dec 21).

The five-year grant offered by one of the largest private foundations in the United States will fund a localised version of Sesame Street, distributed through television and digital devices, and home visits using Sesame Street content for an estimated 1.5 million children.

Instead of the stars that Americans grew up with, like Big Bird, Elmo and Oscar the Grouch, the characters would be tailored to the region, speaking Arabic and Iraqi Kurdish.

Sesame Workshop expects to reach 9.4 million children, teaching them language, reading, math and social skills. The company said the Muppets would "model inclusion and respect, and gender equity, and they will provide engaging educational messages, always from a child's perspective".

Ms Westin said having characters that children can relate to makes the children more receptive to the lessons. "You could envision a Muppet with a story line where they have to leave their home, or lives in a tent, or becomes best friends with a neighbor," she said.

 

Though billions of dollars are spent on refugee aid each year, just 2 per cent goes toward education, and just a sliver of that goes toward early-childhood intervention, said Mr David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, in an interview Thursday. Money tends to flow toward immediate needs like food and medical supplies, leaving education behind.

 

But refugees are often displaced for years at a time, making education an overlooked need, he said.

If the program is successful, the organisations would hope to adapt it for other refugee crises, Mr Miliband said. While the grant would create the first Sesame Street expansion to be focused on refugees, Sesame Workshop has created local versions in India, Afghanistan and South Africa.

"We're determined to create a proven model of early-childhood intervention that can then be used for refugees around the world," he said.

Sesame Workshop also broadcasts Iftah Ya Simsim, which translates as "Open Sesame," in the Persian Gulf, and has worked in Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, Israel and Turkey.