In January, Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee will start work on what they're calling "the largest childhood intervention in the history of humanitarian response." Funded by a $100 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation, the project aims to reach 9.4 million Syrian refugees and local children in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria through a new, regional version of Sesame Street and related activities.
The show will be distributed via television, the internet and mobile phones, with related content given to childcare centers, to clinics and directly into the hands of parents and other caregivers in their homes.
Sherrie Westin, Sesame Workshop's executive vice president of global impact and philanthropy, spoke to NPR's Ari Shapiro about the program. Here are highlights from the interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
On reaching a refugee audience:
Penetration of both TV and mobile in Syria and Jordan is huge, and that surprises people who don't fully understand that the largest number of refugees aren't in camps but in regular neighborhoods. We're able to reach children together with their new neighbors.
On adapting Sesame Street for a refugee audience:
Literacy, numeracy and the social-emotional skills that build resilience are somewhat universal. What makes the content most impactful for children in developing countries and places of conflict is that it's developed locally. The basic model is what Sesame Street has done for almost 50 years but making sure it's more reflective of their reality is what makes it so special.
I can certainly imagine there will be a character who had to leave their home or who lives in a tent or becomes best friends with their new neighbor. For instance, in Afghanistan the lead Muppet is a little girl named Zari. Girls' education is a real issue in Afghanistan. She wears her hijab with her uniform.
On reaching children and parents at home:
A home visitor meets with a caregiver, training them on the most important way to help a child overcome trauma. There's so much proven science on this — that adult-child engagement is the most important thing. It's called nurturing care. It may sound intuitive, but when parents have been through this kind of situation they are very stressed themselves. We give them techniques and tools and strategies to help their children overcome the toxic stress — games, content, storybooks, apps, all sorts of things — but also an understanding of the importance of that nurturing care.
On managing the stress afflicting refugee children:
We know from brain science that the impact of stress on a child in those first five years of life can have lifelong repercussions. When you look at all the aid going to the refugee crisis, less than 2 percent goes to education and a tiny sliver of that goes to the early years — understandable because most of the humanitarian response has been shelter and food and security. Giving young children social-emotional skills and resilience will help them regardless of what comes down the pike. We believe this will become the catalyst for refugee response to focus on children and not just on the other humanitarian aid.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Our next guest is part of a team with a plan to change the lives of millions of children.
SHERRIE WESTIN: You know, it's not often that you get a chance to change the world. And that's what this feels like.
SHAPIRO: Sherrie Westin is with Sesame Workshop, the maker of "Sesame Street." The MacArthur Foundation gave them and the International Rescue Committee a $100 million grant to develop early childhood education programs for Syrian refugees. "Sesame Street" already has experience creating characters that speak to the different experiences of children around the world - for example, in South Africa.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TAKALANI SESAME")
FRAN BRILL: (As Kami) The other children at school don't want to play with me because I'm HIV positive. They say they don't want to touch me because they think I will make them sick.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Oh, but Kami, we all know you can't get HIV just by touching someone or by being friends with them.
SHAPIRO: I asked Sherrie Westin what kinds of new "Sesame Street" characters might reflect the experience of Syrian refugee children.
WESTIN: So I'm not, you know, giving away any sort of major storyline, but I can certainly imagine that there will be a character who perhaps had to leave their home or lives in a tent or becomes best friends with their new neighbor. So we want the characters to be characters that children can identify with and storylines that they can relate to. And then, you know, we have a proven track record of the academic basics, the social-emotional skills. All of that will be embedded in the curriculum. And it will be through television, but also through digital, through mobile and then direct services for the most vulnerable children.
SHAPIRO: I was going to ask - do most refugees have access to TV programs?
WESTIN: Yeah, believe it or not, they do. The penetration of both television and mobile in the region - Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon - is huge. And I think that surprises people. The other thing that I think most people don't fully understand is that the largest number of refugees are not actually in camps. They are in host communities or regular neighborhoods.
SHAPIRO: Apartments in Lebanon and Jordan and Turkey, things like that.
WESTIN: Absolutely. So one of the advantages of mass media is we're able to reach children together with their new neighbors in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. But the direct services, again, is a key component where we'll be creating educational content to reach children through home visitations and learning centers. And that's really essential. So it's both the mass broad reach and the individual touch.
SHAPIRO: So now we're getting out of the television set, collaborating with the International Rescue Committee to do face-to-face work.
WESTIN: Absolutely. And that's so important to address toxic stress. You know, you can imagine for a refugee family how stressful it might be. But we know from brain science that the impact of stress on a child in those first five years of life can have lifelong repercussions. It literally affects their brain development. So ironically, when you look at all of the aid going to refugee crisis less than 2 percent goes to education, and a tiny sliver of that goes to the early years. It's somewhat understandable because, you know, most of the humanitarian response has been shelter and food and security.
But the refugee crisis has changed over the years to the extent that most families are displaced for an average of 10 years. So if we're not focusing on the youngest refugees and the most vulnerable who are impacted the most from that stress, from trauma, from war, from displacement, then we're not giving them the tools they need to succeed.
SHAPIRO: Give us an example of what somebody doing one of these home visits is likely to do with the parents and children that they meet.
WESTIN: A home visitor would go in to meet with a caregiver - the mother, the grandmother, those caring for young children. They would meet with the parents and the children. And they would be training them, if you will, on the most important way to help a child overcome trauma. And there's so much proven science on this. Literally that adult-child engagement is the most important thing. It's called nurturing care. It may sound intuitive, but when you've been through this kind of situation, these parents are very stressed themselves.
And to give them techniques and tools and strategies to help their children overcome the toxic stress - it's games. It's content. It's storybooks. It's apps. It's all sorts of things that they will engage with the child with. But also, you're giving them the understanding of the importance of that nurturing care.
And there are, again, so many studies that this is the most impactful way to help children overcome crisis, but it has never been done to the magnitude that we'll be able to do with the MacArthur grant. And I believe that we'll be able to change the model not just for the children here in the Middle East, but that this will change the humanitarian response model for refugee children wherever they may be.
SHAPIRO: Sherrie Westin, executive vice president at Sesame Workshop, thanks so much for talking with us.
WESTIN: Well, I'm thrilled to be here. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.