Sesame Street Is Coming To Refugee Camps

When it comes to preschool education, Muppets speak a universal language.

A Syrian four-year-old girl in a refugee camp might have gone to preschool before her family was forced to leave home–but once inside a camp, there’s rarely any opportunity for young children to learn. Now Sesame Street wants to begin to change that, with the help of some Muppets.


Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) have partnered to start developing educational content for preschool-aged kids living in refugee camps.

“It’s a logical place for us to be, because we are all about providing access to education for children who may not have preschool education,” says Sherrie Westin, executive vice president of global impact and philanthropy at Sesame Workshop. “When you look at the sheer number of displaced children who are refugees today, that’s a place we felt we could really help fill a void.”

While refugee camps often have some elementary education (albeit not enough), preschool is very rare. “Really young children have nowhere to go during the day,” says Sarah Smith, senior director for education at the IRC. “And their parents are often working.”

Even worse, young children may have no resources to deal with the violence they’ve witnessed–war, bombings, or the death of family members. Sesame Workshop has experience in helping kids build the skills to cope with unusually difficult problems.

The new content the program creates for refugee kids may also help their parents. As with their programs in the U.S., Sesame Workshop plans to make the content appealing for adults. “The learning is deeper when a parent is engaged in the content with the child,” says Westin. “I think in these situations, it really plays to our strengths, because the parents are experiencing a great deal of stress, too.”

Some of the characters may be developed specifically for certain locations, or borrowed from the local programming that Sesame Street has already developed for various cultures. “If you’re in Afghanistan, there’s Zari, a little girl Muppet,” she says. “In Egypt, it’s Khokha; in India, it’s Champki.” Elmo may also be part of the lineup.


The project will likely begin with a pilot near Syria and possibly in East Africa. Depending on the location, the type of content will vary; Syrian refugees often have access to smartphones, and sometimes TV. In other places, Sesame Workshop might develop printed stories or radio. The IRC, which has started preschools in a few areas, will help guide the content.

In March, Sesame Workshop spent a day in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, and has run other pilots. But the partnership with IRC will be the first time it has run an ongoing program with refugees.

Of the 60 million-plus refugees around the world now, roughly half are children. “We know from recent brain research how important investing in the early years is,” says Westin. “Content that is reaching children in the first five years really has the most potential in terms of returns on investment and long-term impact.”

The partners want to inspire more organizations to help preschoolers. “We’re hoping that this can affect the entire sector and mobilize others to really focus on young children as well,” says Smith.

All Photos: © Jordan Pioneers Multimedia Production Co.


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."