The Ahlan Simsim initiative has transformed lives of children and families through early childhood development services in its fifth year
In 2022, Ahlan Simsim entered its fifth year and achieved demonstrable impact, firmly establishing that integrating educational media resources with early childhood development (ECD) services can have transformative benefits for children whose lives have been upended by conflict and crisis. We built upon year four’s expansion by further extending our initiative’s reach across broadcast, digital, and direct services; we introduced a delightful new character who brings visibility to children with disabilities and girls in STEM; and our research partner, New York University’s Global TIES for Children Research Center, completed three impact studies that confirm our program’s positive impact on children and caregivers throughout the region. Year five also saw the expansion of our Ahlan Simsim initiative in Iraq and an increased advocacy role in our continued efforts to inform policy.
With the Syrian conflict reaching its 12th year and political and economic crises in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) showing no signs of abating, families across the region continued to feel the impact of conflict, displacement, natural disasters, and climate insecurity—and the need for Ahlan Simsim only deepened. Despite many context-based challenges faced by children and caregivers in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, Ahlan Simsim’s reach and impact grew in multiple ways. We reflected on the fifth year of our program in the Ahlan Simsim 2022 Annual Report Executive Summary in English and Arabic.
Jad and his friend enjoy reading together.
In 2022, Ahlan Simsim, Sesame Workshop’s locally produced, award-winning Arabic-language show, launched Seasons 5 and 6, reaching children throughout the MENA region. Focusing on kindness towards self and others, Season 5 premiered with a Ramadan Special and included new segments on Literacy, Do-It-Yourself (DIY), and Healthy Habits. Season 5 also brought the historic introduction of Ameera. An eight-year-old natural leader with a great sense of humor and a passion for science and basketball, Ameera is Sesame Workshop’s first Muppet to use a wheelchair and crutches, due to a spinal cord injury. Thoughtfully designed to challenge stereotypes and reflect children’s lived experiences, she brings visibility to the more than 12 million displaced people and 240 million children worldwide estimated to have a disability, as well as to the important role of girls in science.
The primary educational objective of Season 6 was to build children’s imagination skills for problem solving, both in service of their social-emotional well-being and their ability to cope with obstacles in their everyday lives. Children who have experienced trauma tend to engage in rigid thinking in response to a perceived threat, and imagination is a valuable tool that can support flexibility and broaden their coping capacities. We continued to build awareness of the show in-region, which paid off: as of May 2022, more than half of displaced Syrian children in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon were watching Ahlan Simsim, and over a quarter of all children in MENA were tuning in—over 23 million children in all.
Basma meets a new friend.
Through ECD services delivered by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in partnership with local organizations and national government partners, Ahlan Simsim hit a major milestone in year five: reaching 1.2 million children and caregivers Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Direct in-person services made up the vast majority of client interactions, and IRC staff and partners continued to use remote and hybrid programming as an effective means of reaching vulnerable populations, including during times of security concerns, severe weather, or lack of transportation.
With an intent to strengthen our formal systems for the long term, we have invested in scaling partnerships and co-developing programs with national ministries and non-governmental organizations. Our work with national partners and ministries in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Northeast Syria across education, health, and social development reached almost 200,000 children with programs including an ECD Health Integration Program in Jordan, the establishment of nursery standards in Lebanon, and variations of a school-readiness program across several countries including Jordan and Iraq, where the Ministry of Education adopted it into the national plan.
Elmo visits an Ahlan Simsim center in Lebanon.
In Iraq, with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), we have created the Ahlan Simsim-Iraq project. Through this expansion of the program, we are creating local content with diverse groups of Iraqi children to help them develop a sense of positive self-identity and mutual respect, promoting social cohesion. In partnership with Save the Children and Mercy Corps, we reached over 9,500 children and youth.
And as part of Ahlan Simsim’s efforts to inform policy and practice, Sesame Workshop and the IRC have become leading global advocates for raising awareness of the needs of young children and caregivers in humanitarian response, increasing investments in ECD in crisis response, and improving the quality of ECD service provision in crisis contexts. Highlights from 2022 include Sesame Workshop President Sherrie Westin presenting before the UN Security Council to spotlight the needs of Ukrainian children and draw attention to the larger global challenge; securing funding in the U.S. federal budget for key issues of young children in U.S. foreign aid, including increased funding for the Office for Vulnerable Children; and more.
Gargur (Grover) meets his friend’s father.
A critically important dimension of Ahlan Simsim is our commitment to nearly doubling the amount of research on ECD in contexts of conflict and crisis. NYU Global TIES for Children led three impact evaluations on different aspects of our work. The results of each of these studies, distributed in May 2023, indicate that Ahlan Simsim’s interventions are having profound positive impacts on children’s learning and caregiver well-being. These impressive results include:
- Watching Ahlan Simsim episodes daily in a classroom setting for 12 weeks significantly increased children’s ability to identify emotions, and they were more able to apply simple emotional regulation strategies, like pausing, calming, and reflecting, to regulate emotions. This evidence illustrates the potential and unique value of using mass media as a means to communicate and deliver important social-emotional learning messages to large, diverse groups of children around the world.
- An 11-week Remote Early Learning Program that integrated Ahlan Simsim video and other resources resulted in large improvements across all domains of child development, comparable to a year of preschool for emergent literacy and numeracy. This compelling evidence shows that remote learning that incorporates educational media resources can be extremely effective in delivering key lessons. This is particularly important for crisis-affected communities around the world, who may not have access to safe, consistent in-person educational opportunities.
- A six-month phone call-based remote adaptation of the Reach Up and Learn curriculum for caregivers of children aged 0-3 had a positive impact on reducing caregivers’ depression. This study shows that building a supportive, non-judgmental space to impart parenting advice through audio-only delivery is not only possible—but can be life-changing—alleviating stress and lowering depression symptoms in parents and caregivers.
One of Ahlan Simsim’s biggest opportunities lies in leveraging our learning, including these impact research results, to develop new programmatic concepts: one in support of children’s transition from pre-primary to primary school and the other in support of caregivers and educators who are providing nurturing care and learning support to children. By serving the entire ecosystem of a child, including supporting their educational transitions and the mental well-being of those who support and care for them, we can holistically strengthen systems that work for children and families and adapt, build upon, and scale these models in other humanitarian contexts as, unfortunately, the needs of children affected by crisis and conflict continue to grow in number.
With the generosity and flexibility of the MacArthur Foundation, we extended Ahlan Simsim into a sixth year. Continuing to adapt to the challenges raised by crises and conflicts in the region, we are strongly encouraged by the results of our research and the continued commitment of our partners to support the ECD needs of conflict-affected families and communities. We look forward to sustaining the impact of our interventions and resources beyond the life of this project, thus achieving our vision of providing all children with the opportunity to grow smarter, stronger, and kinder and empowering each generation to build a better world.
Ma’zooza loves hearing stories from her friend’s mother.