Sesame Workshop launches Sesame Street-style show for Syrian refugee children

The new show won’t focus on numbers and letters as much as emotions like fear, anger, loneliness and caring. Lesley Stahl reports, Sunday at 7:30 p.m. ET and 7 p.m. PT

A new Sesame Street for Syrian refugee kids

“Sesame Street” is bringing a new gang of Muppets to the Middle East. The creators of the legendary children’s show and the International Rescue Committee have joined forces to address the needs of child refugees in the region. Lesley Stahl traveled to Jordan to see the Arabic-language show as it was being filmed, and to meet Syrian refugee families whose young children are the focus of IRC services. Stahl visited refugee camps, as well as families living in tents on the side of the road, to see the needs of the youngest refugees firsthand. Stahl’s report will be broadcast on the next edition of 60 Minutes, Sunday, November 17 at 7:30 p.m. ET and 7 p.m. PT on CBS. 
Worldwide, more than half of all refugees are children. And as intractable conflicts drag on for years and years, being a refugee today often means not going home for decades. “We know now that the average length of displacement for a refugee is close to 20 years,” says David Miliband, head of the IRC. “And that’s why it’s a total tragedy that less than 2% of all humanitarian aid funding goes on education, even though half of the world’s refugees are kids.” Only a tiny sliver of that 2% goes to pre-school aged children, who are among the most vulnerable of all. 
In 2016, the MacArthur Foundation offered a $100 million grant to any organization that could “solve a big global problem.” The IRC and Sesame Workshop had already begun collaborating on ways to help the youngest refugees, and they saw an opportunity. David Miliband tells Stahl, “We defined the global problem we wanted to tackle was trauma, toxic stress among refugee children in the Middle East.” Their joint effort won the grant: Sesame would create a new show; the IRC would drastically ramp up in-person services to refugee kids, including in their makeshift homes.

The new show is called “Ahlan Simsim,” meaning “Welcome Sesame.” But unlike what “Sesame Street” in the U.S. has done for five decades, this program will not focus on teaching letters and numbers. Its primary emphasis will be on emotions like fear, anger, loneliness, and caring. Says Scott Cameron, the longtime Sesame producer running Ahlan Simsim, “We want every episode to identify an emotion, but then give really concrete actions so that children can learn what to do.” In a featured episode, one of the show’s main characters, a girl Muppet named Basma, decides to make a toy drum to replace the one her best friend Jad had to leave behind when he left his old home. 

The show will air in 20 countries in the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf starting in February. Yes, the plan is ambitious, says Miliband. “We’re delivering in-person services to over a million kids and educational content via TV to nearly eight million kids,” he says. “So it’s a big enterprise.” And it includes funds to measure effectiveness, so it can be replicated. Miliband is confident. “There’s no reason not to take this to refugee communities from Myanmar who are in Bangladesh, from South Sudan who are in Uganda because this is a model that should work for every child who’s forced to endure the trauma of being a refugee.”