How Elmo and friends are using Muppet magic to bring hope, education to refugee children

Sesame Workshop is working with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to bring hope in the form of education to refugee children. PlayIRC/Sesame Workshop/Ryan Heffernan
WATCH Sesame Street visits children at Jordan refugee camp

Elmo, a mega-star like few others, has been a fixture on Sesame Street for over 30 years, delighting generations of children and adults alike.

And now, the team at Sesame Workshop is embarking on an amazing new adventure. They are working with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to bring hope in the form of education to the millions of children whose lives have been torn apart by the war in Syria.

More than 5 million people have fled Syria since 2011, making it the largest humanitarian crisis of our time. Many seek shelter in refugee camps in neighboring Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

ABC News’ chief foreign correspondent Terry Moran got to see firsthand how Muppets can bring understanding and happiness to these children.

“These are children with the ideas … to make something of their lives, and we’re determined to give them the chance,” said David Miliband, CEO and president of the IRC.

Sesame Workshop is working with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to bring hope in the form of education to refugee children. IRC/Sesame Workshop/Ryan Heffernan
Sesame Workshop is working with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to bring hope in the form of education to refugee children.

Earlier this year, Elmo and his furry buddy Grover, traveled to a refugee camp in Jordan to meet with some of the kids who now call the camp home.

“Education is a haven for people who have lost everything,” Miliband said. “And for children it gives them just an ounce of normality that can give them a chance to rebuild their lives.”

Their approach to this crisis is three-fold. They will produce a new version of Sesame Street, in Arabic, aimed at reaching children in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, especially refugee kids. They will also establish a caregiving program delivered through home visits and mobile messages. Lastly, they will create an early learning program that provides teachers and facilitators will educational content and lesson plans.

“We will also do what Sesame Street does best, and that’s modelling inclusion, and acceptance,” said Sherrie Westin, executive vice president for global impact and philanthropy at Sesame Workshop.

There are already Sesame Streets all over the world and Sesame Workshop often develops new Muppets -- local characters that are created to address the needs of that culture.

From Galli Galli Sim Sim in India, to Plaza Sesamo in Mexico and Zhima Jie in China, there is the same kind of Muppet magic on six continents, reaching countless children.

“It’ll be in their language, their culture, and that’s where I think we have the greatest impact,” Westin said.

For Sesame’s South African show, Takalani Sesame, the team developed a character named Kami, the first ever HIV-positive Muppet.

“One in four children at the time was affected by AIDS,” Westin said. “We were able to teach children that you couldn’t catch AIDS from playing with Kami, but most of all we were able to give children a lexicon with which they could talk about HIV.”

Another example, Westin said, is in Afghanistan, where only a third of girls are educated.

“When we created our first local Muppet [there], we thought long and hard, but we knew she was going to be a girl,” she said. “Little boys who watch test 30 percent higher on gender equity, thinking it’s OK for their sister to go to school – and that’s the power of media and the Muppets.”

Earlier this summer, Terry Moran went to Lebanon to meet with some of the children that would benefit from this project, including 6-year-old Aziza and her brother, 5-year-old Ibrahim. They fled here with their family from Aleppo, Syria, in 2014.

“The best thing about here is school,” Ibrahim said.

Ibrahim’s teacher said his personality has changed since he started coming to class. At first, she said, he isolated himself from the other kids. But now, he’s very active.

“He loves school,” his teacher said. “Sometimes he helps us when a student is late, he goes and brings them here to school. He wants to help the other students.”

In this little school in Lebanon, the children received a surprise visit from Tonton, a Muppet from Hikayat Simsim, the Jordanian version of Sesame Street. In looking at the children’s smiling faces, it’s easy to understand the magic and the power of Sesame Street.

New Muppets are created back in the U.S. at the Sesame Workshop. Zeerak, a Muppet who debuted this year, is from the Afghanistan production of Sesame Street called Baghch-e-Simsim. When it comes to creating a local Muppet, every single detail is thought out and every aspect is designed to teach with the local culture in mind.

“We also wanted to make sure that he looked Afghan, and so Afghan children could also see themselves when they see Zeerak on screen,” said Estee Bardanashvili, a Senior Producer at the Sesame Workshop. “So we looked at various fabrics and we looked at different outfits that little boys wear.”

The next project is a Muppet for the refugees. It’s all part of what’s really a rescue effort for a generation of children.

“The great American story is that the privileges of the few can be taken to the many,” Miliband said.

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