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Refugee Response

COVID-19 Updates

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, we know it’s the most vulnerable who are most at risk—including displaced families. Together with our partners, we continue to adapt our refugee response work to reach the youngest refugees and their families. While in-person direct services are on hold, we’re delivering parenting resources through WhatsApp, making storybooks available online, and airing brand-new, remotely-produced COVID-19 content – all to support continued early learning and help families cope during these especially challenging times.

Childhood in Crisis

The scale of the global refugee crisis is staggering. More than 82 million people worldwide have been displaced from their homes – over 35 million of whom are children. They’ve lost homes and loved ones, seen violence, and endured the kinds of trauma that put them at risk for lifelong impairments. Millions have no access to quality early learning, yet less than 3% of all humanitarian aid goes to education, and only a tiny fraction of that to early childhood. With such high stakes, the challenge is clear. How the world meets it will have ripple effects on society for decades. But in the face of great difficulty, we also see hope.

Transforming the Outlook

Children are remarkably resilient. At Sesame Workshop, we know from decades of tackling some of the toughest challenges facing children that if we reach them early, we can help change their trajectories. But we also know we can’t do it alone—in this case, we needed partners who understand the plight of refugees as well as we understand the needs of young children. So, with historic support from the MacArthur Foundation and the LEGO Foundation, we’ve teamed up with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), BRAC, and others to bring hope and opportunity to a generation of refugee children.

In Bangladesh, we’re working to bring play-based learning to hundreds of thousands of children in and around the massive refugee settlement at Cox’s Bazar through the Play to Learn program. This program combines Sesame’s educational media with BRAC and IRC’s direct services reaching families in their homes, community centers, and play spaces to infuse children’s daily lives with playful learning opportunities that are essential to healthy development. At the heart of the program are two very special brand-new Sesame Muppets—Noor and Aziz, 6-year-old twins who live with their family in a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.  Rooted in the rich Rohingya culture and informed by extensive research and input from Rohingya families, Noor and Aziz will bring the transformational power of playful learning to families at a time when it’s needed more than ever before.

With the IRC, we launched Ahlan Simsim ("Welcome Sesame" in Arabic), a groundbreaking program that delivers early learning and nurturing care to children and caregivers affected by the Syrian conflict. A new, localized version of Sesame Street, also called Ahlan Simsim, debuted in February 2020 with a focus on building the social-emotional skills so important to children who have faced traumatic experiences. Combined with in-person direct services across Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, Ahlan Simsim reaches families wherever they are—from classrooms and health clinics to TV and mobile devices—with the vital educational resources that they need in order to thrive.

This historic initiative— the largest early childhood intervention in the history of humanitarian response—will reach millions of children in the Syrian response region and Bangladesh with early education, nurturing care, and playful learning—with millions more reached through mass media.

Embracing Innovation

Our humanitarian work is expanding into Latin America, using emerging technology to reach some of the nearly 5.5 million refugees and migrants who have fled Venezuela. Working with a range of funders and on-the-ground implementation partners, we will provide free access to meaningful educational content to displaced children and families in Colombia, Peru, and Brazil with two new delivery models: the Jardín Sésamo device that provides Sesame content over free local WiFi in selected spaces and our Sésamo ChatBot, which uses WhatsApp to bring caregivers a menu of resources across our renowned whole-child curriculum. New content aimed at improving digital literacy and countering xenophobia will reach Venezuelan migrants and members of host communities as well, as our local partner organizations integrate our tools into their migrant response efforts. The content will reach children and families wherever they are, from shelters or food distribution programs to the migrant route itself, overcoming barriers to access and filling important educational and social-emotional gaps. Child-centered materials featuring beloved Sésamo characters will bring joy and learning to children, while adult-facing resources support positive parenting practices. Partnerships with direct service providers allow these solutions to be integrated into  existing services and assessed for efficacy, ensuring that these resources are useful and reach an even wider audience.

Maintaining Proven Methods

By reaching vulnerable children with proven Sesame content through established methods, we can help them reach their full potential. Our materials promote the kind of engagement with a caring adult and nurturing care that has been shown to strengthen children’s resilience and mitigate the effects of traumatic experiences. We also equip vulnerable children with language, reading, math, and social-emotional skills that can set them on a path to thrive into adulthood.

A Model for the Future

Our partners at NYU Global TIES Center are conducting a multi-year, evidence-based research and evaluation program to measure the success of our approach in the Syrian response region and Bangladesh. Our research will help double the existing evidence base on what early education programs are most effective in crisis settings. It will be shared with the entire humanitarian community—because real success is much bigger than any one region. We intend for this program to become a scalable model that can be replicated: one that will transform humanitarian response wherever children and families are in conflict or crisis.


If you’re interested in keeping up with our work in Bangladesh and the Syrian response region, join our Humanitarian Programs newsletter mailing list here.


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