Three new Arabic-speaking characters are about to join the Sesame Street family in the Middle East. The aim of Basma, Jad and Ma’zooza is to help children in n Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq to not only read and write, but also to deal with the trauma of being displaced.
Sesame Workshop is a non-profit organization behind the Sesame Street show. They have collaborated with he International Rescue Committee (IRC) and will be producing a whole season of the programme to help refugee children. In addition to learning the alphabet and developing numerical skills, the programme aims to help the children to process the loneliness, fear and despair that they are faced with every day.
The show’s name is “Ahlan Simsim” and this translates to “Welcome Sesame”. It will premiere in February 2020 featuring Basma, Jad and Ma’zooza. These characters will teach children about human interactions and emotions as well as how to process them.
Executive producer Scott Cameron wrote,”We also know from research that these ’emotional ABCs’ are especially important or kids who’ve experienced the trauma of war and displacement, as is the case for so many children in the Syrian response region.”
Cameron described Basma as a “purple-furred Muppet” who is “a born performer” with a “special ability to create music and sound effects.” This, he wrote, can “come in handy when she can’t quite find the words to express herself.”
Both Basma and her yellow friend Jad are six years old and live in the “Ahlan Simsim” neighbourhood. The two of them are accompanied by Ma’zooza, the baby goat.
A video showing snippets from the new show, reveals Jad alluding to his difficult past, saying, “I did not bring my toys, I had to leave them behind when we came here.” He carries with him only a paint brush from home as he loves to paint. The absence of his toys and the paintbrush show that he is a refugee.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees states that about 6 million Syrians have fled from their own country into neighbouring states. Approximately 50% of these refugees are less than 18 years old and receiving an education will be a major challenge for them. Within Syria itself, there are also more than 6 million internally displaced people who have experienced the trauma of losing their homes along with death and violence.
According to IRC director David Miliband these children are deprived of a normal childhood and “risk growing up with violence as a normality.”
The new Muppet show was no easy feat and took the brain power of psychologists, linguists, authors and artists who met in Lebanon and Jordan to workshop and swap ideas.
To truly connect with refugee kids, the show had to feature situations that refugees who spend an average of 20 years abroad and experience immeasurable trauma, had to be able to relate to.
Sesame Street is not unknown in the Middle East where it premiered in 1979, unitl it went off the air in 1990. Other well-known characters from the show such as Grover, Elmo and Cookie Monster will be joining Basma, Jad and Ma’zooza.