When the newest international version of Sesame Street airs on February 2 on channels in the Middle East, it will include three new characters: Jad, a furry yellow Muppet who’s new to the neighborhood; Basma, a purple Muppet who welcomes him; and Ma’zooza, a baby goat who helps provide comic relief.
It’s not the first version of the show in the region. But it was created to reach a specific new audience in particular—the millions of children who have been displaced by the war in Syria or other crises and may no longer have the chance to go to school. Sesame Workshop partnered with the International Refugee Committee to develop the show, called Ahlan Simsim, Arabic for “welcome sesame.”
“One of the big gaps in humanitarian assistance for so long has been that only about 3% of humanitarian aid goes to education, and of that, only a tiny fraction goes to early childhood education,” says Scott Cameron, the executive producer of the show. “As a global community, we need to figure out ways to really create new models to help children in need in these crisis settings.”
The show, developed in workshops with experts from across the region, will air on a satellite channel that reaches 20 countries, including Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, along with local channels and YouTube. It takes place in a secure-feeling courtyard and a grandmother’s kitchen, and the set uses elements from several countries; a jar of Syrian pickles sits on the grandmother’s counter, for example, and an animated character speaks in an Iraqi accent. Each episode contains fully original content focused on the new characters—Sesame research suggests that children like to hook onto a few core characters—with support from classic Muppets like Grover, and a predictable narrative structure that the team says is proven to help children learn.
Though the themes have a clear connection to the lives of refugees, the show is not aimed solely at refugee families or those who have been displaced inside their own countries. “I would say the storylines work for all kids,” Cameron says. The first season focuses on helping children identify and deal with emotions like sadness and anger, both to help them in their lives in general and as they learn. “The research, again and again, shows that children do better academically if they are able to manage their emotions and get the help they need and know when to ask for help,” he says.
Some episodes revolve around issues like moving to a new neighborhood and making friends, or missing a family member. Sesame Workshop is also working with the International Refugee Committee to create in-person tools to deal with more difficult topics like grief, such as a storybook featuring the show’s characters that children can read along with a trained professional from the nonprofit. The show is designed to help parents as well. “We’re giving parents and caregivers tools to deal with those stronger emotions themselves,” says Cameron.