Our First Year of 100&Change: Successes, Challenges, and Learnings from Ahlan Simsim

July 30, 2019 Perspectives 100&Change
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René Celaya
Managing Director, Ahlan Simsim
Sesame Workshop

It has been just over a year and a half since Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) participated in MacArthur’s inaugural 100&Change competition and were awarded a $100 million grant for Ahlan Simsim, our five-year joint program bringing early learning and nurturing care to children affected by the Syrian conflict and displacement across the Middle East.

We are excited to share the Executive Summary of our 2018 Ahlan Simsim Annual Report, which highlights our key program updates. Year one of Ahlan Simsim began with a nine-month Discovery Phase: a time to revisit our assumptions, understand the opportunities and challenges to implementing in a dynamic context, and align our partnership, educational objectives, content, and staffing around the program’s ambitions.


We made significant progress in 2018. We laid the foundation for our new, all-local version of Sesame Street, the mass media component of our program.  Based on research and feedback from advisors, we decided to focus season one of Ahlan Simsim on the fundamental skills of identifying and managing emotions, which are critical to children’s success in school and later in life. We also created our lovable new Muppet characters, as well as the animated and human characters they will meet on their adventures. In consultation with in-region education advisors and IRC field staff, we identified and adapted existing Sesame content to integrate into direct services—including videos, storybooks, and other materials in Arabic and Kurdish. Despite delays in hiring, we launched direct services for families in Jordan and Lebanon.

We also participated in global public events and garnered international media coverage to highlight the need for early learning programs in crisis contexts. And we developed our research plans and deepened our relationships with regional and global stakeholders. These efforts prepare us to not only improve our models but also share our findings to inform early childhood development interventions in other humanitarian contexts.

[To] see the true depth and magnitude of our impact thus far, we look to the stories of our clients in the region.

We also advanced our goal of catalyzing additional support for children affected by displacement: inspired by MacArthur’s audacious philanthropy and Ahlan Simsim’s bold approach to early education for children in crisis, the LEGO Foundation awarded Sesame Workshop an additional $100 million in December 2018, which enables us to expand our programs and further promote early child development in humanitarian settings.

We count these among the many exciting, broad-strokes successes and learnings of our first year. But to see the true depth and magnitude of our impact thus far, we look to the stories of our clients in the region—like that of a young Syrian girl named Sara*. When their home in Syria was destroyed, Sara and her family relocated to Lebanon with nothing but the clothes they could carry. “Our life was full of sadness. We were alone and afraid all the time,” says her mother, Safiya*. Now, the family of seven lives in a 4x4 meter tent in Arsal. In December 2018, Sara began attending Ahlan Simsim sessions at the IRC’s Safe Healing and Learning Space, a bright and friendly classroom where the walls are covered with children’s drawings. There, in the care of IRC’s Ahlan Simsim facilitators, Sara and other refugee children play educational games, watch Arabic-language Sesame content, and read Sesame storybooks. “I had lots of fun with my friends during the activities,” Sara says. “It made me and my friends get to know each other better and play together.” 

“She was so happy and excited,” her mother recalls about the first time Sara came home from the center. “She told her sisters about it and practiced the activities with them at home.”

Sara’s family still faces the daily hardships of displacement. But Ahlan Simsim offers them hope and supports their wishes for Sara’s continued growth: “I hope Sara can keep learning, and that she lives in peace together with her family,” her mother says.

In the first year of Ahlan Simsim, our program made meaningful impacts for thousands of children like Sara, and we have reached thousands more since then. But this is just the beginning.

We never lose sight of the growing number of children around the world—31 million and counting—who are displaced.

As we look ahead to the next four years, we are closely monitoring factors that could impact our progress. As we continue TV distribution negotiations, we are carefully considering how each platform might contribute to the reach of Ahlan Simsim. Regarding direct services, we will continue to monitor the geopolitical context and leverage our flexible direct services models to reach and teach as many families and children as possible, even as the need evolves. We are also aware that government approvals are frequently subject to delays and funding for humanitarian programs is seldom assured. All of these risks feed into our strategy, powered by flexible delivery methods and partnerships that allow us to adapt to challenges on the ground, whether they are geopolitical, operational, or financial. While the risks are significant, so is the opportunity.

We never lose sight of the growing number of children around the world—31 million and counting—who are displaced. To these children, and to the families and communities who support them, we are determined to bring joy, hope, and opportunity. By surrounding children and caregivers with vital learning experiences and nurturing care, we help them tap wells of resilience that run deeper than any conflict, creating a brighter future for a generation of children whose wellbeing can’t wait.


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*Names have been changed to protect clients’ privacy.