In a refugee camp in southeastern Bangladesh where nearly one million Rohingya refugees now live after fleeing from Myanmar, there’s little access to the internet or TV. But children there will still be able to enjoy the work of Sesame Street, and see their lives reflected in the two newest Muppet characters: twin six-year-old refugees named Noor and Aziz.
“We know that children learn best when they see themselves and they can identify with these characters,” says Sherrie Westin, president of social impact at Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit that makes Sesame Street. A team spent more than a year developing the new characters for the latest iteration of a humanitarian program called Play to Learn, a partnership with the nonprofits International Rescue Committee and BRAC that brings play-based learning to children displaced by conflict. The work includes videos with the new characters and older characters like Elmo, but also storybooks and other materials that children can access without smartphones or computers.
Earlier this year, a new version of Sesame Street began airing in Jordan and Lebanon for children displaced by the war in Syria. In both the Middle East and Bangladesh, the programs, backed by a $100 million grant from the Lego Foundation, give kids access to educational tools when they might not be able to attend school. They also are designed to help children deal with the trauma they’ve experienced as refugees.
The Rohingya community in Myanmar has been persecuted for decades, but after a surge in attacks in 2017, hundreds of thousands of people fled the country. Nearly 24,000 members of the community have been killed by government forces. More than a hundred thousand others were beaten; more than a hundred thousand homes were burned down. Thousands of women and girls have been raped by police and army officers. Soldiers have brutally killed children. The traumatized survivors—the vast majority of whom have experienced the murder of a family member or friend—are now living in an overcrowded camp in a host country that also wants them to move. (The Bangladeshi government is now beginning to relocate some refugees to a remote island.)
The new Sesame Street characters address issues like how to deal with anxiety; in one storyline, the Muppets are playing under a table with a sheet draped over the top, and one of the characters becomes afraid of the dark. The other helps him calm down by breathing from his belly. The program also helps children connect with adults to deal with their fears through the on-the-ground work of BRAC, an international development organization that works in the camp. “By promoting that engagement, you are really giving them more opportunity to build resilience, and to overcome the negative impact of the trauma and stress they’ve experienced,” says Westin.
As with Sesame Street in other countries, the project in Bangladesh also teaches basic math and parts of early education. Before the pandemic, children could visit a “play lab” in the camp that began screening some of the new videos. After the classroom shut down and home visits from the nonprofit had to stop due to COVID-19, the team scrambled to find new ways to reach families, including phone calls to caregivers with tips on how young children could keep learning.
The characters, which were developed with close input from the Rohingya community in the camp, are another way to reach those kids. “We’re at a stage now where we feel like we can have something that really resonates, that they’ve never experienced before,” Westin says. “Most of these children will have never seen characters like themselves in media or content.”