Arabic Sesame Street helps children explore emotions

Sesame Workshop, the non-governmental organization behind series like "Sesame Street," teamed up with the International Rescue Committee to produce a new show for Middle Eastern children affected by war and displacement.

al-monitor The new Sesame Workshop puppet character Jad makes new friends in Amman, Jordan. Photo by Ryan Donnell/Sesame Workshop.

Mar 10, 2020

"Frustrated" was not a word used by five-year-old Tamer until he watched the children's show “Ahlan Simsim," the Arabic version of the "Sesame Street." He learned the word from the show’s blue monster Gargur — Grover in the English-language version — during a lesson on how to express “some of the more difficult feelings,” his mother said. 

Tamer joined children from all over Syria last month for a special screening of Sesame Workshop’s new Arabic retooling, which focuses on helping displaced children in Syria and the surrounding region learn to identify and deal with their emotions. 

“Helping children and caregivers learn the difference between anger and frustration, for example, can really help them in talking with the people they care about to manage their emotions,” the show’s executive producer Scott Cameron told Al-Monitor.

The show debuted Feb. 2 amid a major military assault against Syrian opposition fighters by the Syrian regime and Russian forces that has fueled the largest displacement of people from the country since war broke out in 2011.

"Ahlan Simsim," which means “Welcome Sesame” in Arabic, grew out of a 2017 competition for a $100 million grant by the MacArthur Foundation.

Sesame Workshop, the non-governmental organization behind series like “Sesame Street” and “DragonTales,” teamed up with the International Rescue Committee on a grant proposal to serve Syrian refugees. The proposal included the creation of a TV show using the large network of materials and on-the-ground resources at the International Rescue Committee’s disposal. The LEGO Foundation awarded an additional $100 million to Sesame Workshop for “Ahlan Simsim” as well as other projects.

Led by Cameron, the show's producers began the development process by asking researchers already active in the region about the pressing needs of children that were displaced by conflict.

“We learned that all children across the Middle East, regardless of their background or situation, need help to identify emotions and manage their emotions,” Cameron said. 

Children became a big part of the show’s development process. Sesame Workshop invited youth from across the Middle East to collaborate with writers, animators, musicians, actors, poets, graphic artists, art therapists and even a clown who works in refugee camps in a series of creative workshops last year in Amman and Beirut to develop and test ideas for the show. 

The producers focused each workshop session on emotions. During one exercise, the show’s team and educators were asked to choose one emoji from their phones that represented frustration. Of the session’s 30 participants, 28 came up with different emojis that represented the same feeling. 

“That was so revealing that without context for what frustration is, it’s very hard to really have a clear sense of how to represent it,” Cameron said. 

After ideas were developed for each show, the children watched an animated storyboard to show producers whether the children were learning and when they laughed. 

Sesame Workshop created two new puppet characters for the project, Basma and Jad. The pair are in the style of traditional Sesame Street characters and are six years old.

Basma represents healthy risk-taking while Jad is a little more cautious and loves to plan and organize. Although Jad is not explicitly identified as a refugee, he is new to Basma’s neighborhood and had to leave most of his old toys behind.

Basma making a new friend in Za'atari Camp, Jordan. (Ryan Donnell/Sesame Workshop)

“We wanted to develop two characters who had different personalities and represented different ways that children approach the world,” Cameron said. “Those characters give us a lot of opportunities to show how children themselves might react to different experiences.”

A baby goat character called Ma’zooza was also created so that Basma and Jad would have someone they could teach the lessons they learned. Watching the puppets teach Ma’zooza these lessons, Cameron said, empowers children and helps them realize they can be leaders and teach other people in their own lives. 

“Ahlan Simsim” airs in Arabic in 20 countries across the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf. The show is also dubbed into Kurdish.

In addition to the show, the Sesame Workshop-IRC program includes creating safe spaces for children in the region in year-long preschool classes, advocating for children in conflict and crisis zones to access early childhood education and partnering with governments and local nonprofits to create “lasting solutions for children,” read a joint statement by Sesame Workshop and the IRC. 

The show is aimed at children between the ages of three and eight. Production is out of Jordan, which hosts more than one million Syrian refugees, according to the World Food Program.

The war in Syria has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced nearly a million since the conflict erupted in 2011. Almost half of those displaced are children, according to the IRC.

When "Ahlan Simsim" was screened for children like Tamer last month, parents in attendance expressed appreciation that the show tackled emotional subjects and showcased relatable storylines for refugees.

“Labeling the word so that children and caregivers know what to call the emotion, that’s really important, but it’s also really important to know that these emotions don’t come out of nowhere,” Cameron said. “They come out of experiences and situations.” 

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