Here's How 'Sesame Street' Is Helping Refugee Children

Tons of parents have relied on Sesame Street to educate and entertain their children for decades, whether it's on a Saturday morning at home or to keep them happy in the cart during a Target run. So what about the millions of refugee families and children with no access to an iPad or adorable Muppets to teach them how to count, wash their hands, and talk about their feelings? Luckily, that's changing this year, thanks to new funding that will bring Sesame Street to refugee children. It might not seem like it, but education and development is just as important for refugee children — millions of them unaccompanied — as shelter, food, and warm clothes.

Thanks to a $100 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation, the Sesame Workshop, the educational organization behind all things Sesame Street, will partner with the International Rescue Committee in an attempt to reach the 9.4 million children refugees from Syria and local kids in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon with a new, regionally focused version of the beloved children's show, according to the New York Times.

There's already a pilot program in Jordan, funded by the Bernard van Leer Foundation and Open Society Foundations. The program will reportedly be the largest "childhood intervention in the history of humanitarian response," Sherrie Westin, the executive vice president of global impact and philanthropy for the Sesame Street Workshop, told NPR.

Westin told the New York Times, "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."

According to a press release from the Sesame Workshop, it will also load up community sites, such as "formal and informal schools" with books, video clips on pre-loaded projectors, and training guides for grown ups to encourage educational based play.

Representatives from the organization will make home visits to meet with a caregiver and show them how to use the materials. "It's called nurturing care. It may sound intuitive, but when parents have been through this kind of situation they are very stressed themselves," Westin explained. She told NPR:

We give them techniques and tools and strategies to help their children overcome the toxic stress — games, content, storybooks, apps, all sorts of things — but also an understanding of the importance of that nurturing care.

It's not like refugee parents don't already know how to parent, but when a life is disrupted by war and violence, it's hard to hold onto educational routines or even bring story books with you. One mother told the IRC in a YouTube video after attending a workshop with her kid, "I used to do this in Syria, but I was not able to do it anymore with my kids, thank you for helping me." So it's as much about helping parents reengage with their children as it is about education.

One of the best features about this grant is that the organization won't just be exporting Big Bird, Elmo, and the Cookie Monster to the Middle East. Instead, the local versions will teach the refugee children reading, math, and social skills in Arabic and Iraqi Kurdish, and the Muppets will represent their situation.

Already, Sesame Street does local versions of the show in India, Afghanistan, and South Africa. So this one will just be tailored to the refugee experience. Westin told NPR in the same interview:

I can certainly imagine there will be a character who had to leave their home or who lives in a tent or becomes best friends with their new neighbor. For instance, in Afghanistan, the lead Muppet is a little girl named Zari. Girls' education is a real issue in Afghanistan. She wears her hijab with her uniform.

Although the characters are different, the mission is the same. "The basic model is what Sesame Street has done for almost 50 years but making sure it's more reflective of their reality is what makes it so special," Westin added on NPR.

She elaborated further in the New York Times , saying that the Muppets will model "inclusion and respect, and gender equity, and they will provide engaging educational messages, always from a child’s perspective.”

David Miliband, President and CEO of the IRC told the New York Times that only about 2 percent of the billions of humanitarian aide goes to education and child development. With 12 million children under the age of 8 years old, according to the Sesame Street Workshop website, that means an entire generation of kids is growing up displaced, living with toxic stress, and falling behind developmentally.

The partnership, powered by the MacArthur Foundation, hopes to not only remedy that, but also set a precedent for children's humanitarian aide, especially as more governments turn their backs on the influx of refugees coming into their countries.

The refugee crisis in the Middle East will have long lasting effects on society and people everywhere. At the very least, Sesame Street and the IRC will ensure that kids aren't left behind developmentally, and Muppets are just the way to do it.

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