It was must-see TV. Earlier this month, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Whoopi Goldberg, Chrissy Teigen and Elvis Costello shared the primetime screen with a horde of colourful monsters. They were celebrating Sesame Street’s 50th season.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, refugee children were also playing with Elmo, Big Bird and the gang.
My parents were both teachers and, like countless homes across Canada, Kermit the Frog was a mainstay in our house while I was growing up. But in certain corners of the world, the longest running children’s television show is doing more than teaching the alphabet; it’s changing lives.
Today, Sesame Workshop—the nonprofit behind the TV show—is delivering the largest early childhood intervention in the history of humanitarian aid. Partnering with the International Rescue Committee and BRAC (the world’s largest development organization), they’ve extended the longest street to refugee camps, where children learn letters and numbers, along with the social-emotional skills needed to heal from trauma.
Ahlan Simsim and Sisimpur (the Arabic and Bangladeshi versions of Sesame Street) reach more than nine million children in refugee camps and their surrounding communities. The shows are broadcast on television and on the radio, with TVs set up for viewing events. Educational content is also created for mobile devices, while physical copies of books, games, puzzles and pamphlets are handed out to homes and medical centres. Play labs in camps offer time with trained facilitators, who bring the show’s philosophy of learning through play to life.
Muppets speaking Arabic, Kurdish and Bengali model inclusion and respect in relatable situations: some navigate their new home as a displaced person; others tackle the stress exhibited by adults, helping children understand why their parents may be frustrated. It’s an ingenious solution to a long-overlooked problem.
With conflicts spiraling in Syria, South Sudan and Yemen, natural disasters in the Caribbean and economic collapse in Venezuela, 70 million people have been forced from their homes. More than half of them are children. International governments spent a record $27 billion on humanitarian aid in 2018, but only two per cent of that was slated for educating youth under 18. Even less is earmarked for children under six.
The MacArthur Foundation addressed this missing link in funding with a $100 million donation to Sesame Workshop in 2017. The grant had two aims: to expand Sesame Workshop’s existing programs with refugees and to challenge other funders to rethink how they give to humanitarian causes. The Lego Foundation matched the amount in 2018 to reach more Syrian and Rohingya refugees.
The humanitarian sector remains focused on immediate needs like food, medicine and shelter, which are desperately needed. But refugees experience displacement for an average of 10 years—often significantly longer. Childhoods are missed as young people go without the schools and support they need at a time when their brains are thirsting for knowledge.
Early Childhood development programs can change that. Fostering social and emotional growth, they improve academic performance, equip young people to deal with stress and trauma, and even help combat radical ideologies.
Cookie Monster and co. have shared their magic with us for 50 seasons. Now, they’re set to transform the way we help refugees and countless children’s lives.
Craig Kielburger is co-founder of the WE Movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.