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An Arabic 'Sesame Street,' For Refugee Children In The Middle East


"Sesame Street" is taking on one of the world's biggest crises - the plight of Syrian refugee children. The Muppets are reaching out to millions of displaced children in a new program. Refugee children face special issues - losing their homes, missing time from school and frequent moves. They grapple with emotions and fears they barely understand. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Beirut.


DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The Syrian refugees at this soccer practice are part of the target audience for "Ahlan Simsim" - "Welcome Sesame," a new show on Arab TV stations and online - also for refugee kids in Jordan, Iraq and Syria. Some here are old enough to remember the war. Many more were born as refugees, raised by parents who fled violence and devastating loss and can pass on the trauma. It shows up in behavior problems, and studies show trauma can even stunt a child's brain development.

BASSIL RICHE: Definitely, these kids have experienced something that no kid should have to experience.

AMOS: Bassil Riche, the soccer coach, has seen the signs in these kids.

RICHE: Maybe the kid misses a shot or something. You know, you can see kind of over-the-top anger or frustration or disappointment in themselves. It's important for them to talk about these things and not keep it inside.

AMOS: Getting those emotions out is the aim of the new program.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Three, two, one - action.

AMOS: Produced in Amman, Jordan, the scripts are in consultation with regional educators and researchers. For 50 years, "Sesame Street" has pioneered programs to address childhood challenges. The new challenge - to create a show for children who are likely to remain refugees throughout their childhood. Scott Cameron is the executive producer in New York.

SCOTT CAMERON: So the show was developed to help children become smarter, stronger and kinder and give them skills to be - to thrive and be resilient.



AMOS: There are some well-known faces, like Grover, the familiar blue Muppet.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Grover, speaking Arabic).

AMOS: He speaks Arabic in "Ahlan Simsim." The newcomers are Jad - bright yellow - Basma is purple. She becomes Jad's best friend when he arrives in the neighborhood. Jad is sometimes sad because he's had to leave everything behind, including his favorite toys. Research shows displaced children don't have the language to identify emotions and the skills to cope, says Cameron. So that's a key educational goal.

CAMERON: "Ahlan Simsim" focusing an entire season on emotions is a pretty big deal. It's definitely a bold move that is born out of a need.

AMOS: The teaching techniques are sometimes silly. They're always fun.

CAMERON: Debka dancers are three animated dancers whose sole function is to identify emotions and label them in a really funny way.

AMOS: And there are practical strategies for how to manage overwhelming feelings. The catchy Debka dancers ensure that the lessons sink in.

CAMERON: They pop into frame out of nowhere, sometimes. So it's always fun to see where they're going to come from. Sometimes, they pop up out of the bushes. They do a dance. They are a very important way for us to make sure that the children pay extra attention when we're first introducing the vocabulary word that matches the emotion.

AMOS: Syrians are now the largest refugee population in the world. The statistics for going home are grim. Displacement lasts longer than ever before, sometimes for decades. Head writer Zaid Baqaeen (ph) says he never uses the label.

ZAID BAQAEEN: It was never put in any script that, oh, you're labeled as a refugee or not because our focus is about welcoming. You know, the name of the show is "Ahlan Simsim," meaning welcome simsim.

AMOS: The welcome is extended on the ground. In a partnership with the International Rescue Committee, the IRC is sending thousands of outreach workers to four countries and extend the lessons of the TV production and tackle some of the hardest subjects, says Cameron.

CAMERON: There are always going to be children who have just excruciatingly difficult experiences in their lives. All around Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, we can have activities that still use the characters from the episodes but can go a little deeper, like, for example, grief.

AMOS: The "Ahlan Simsim" project is a new way to correct the shortcomings of traditional humanitarian aid that provides for immediate needs but does little to prepare a generation to become resilient adults.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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