René Celaya of Sesame Workshop and Marianne Stone of International Rescue Committee share an update on Ahlan Simsim’s work in 2019 and how it adapts to challenging circumstances.
Year two of Ahlan Simsim was a year of firsts. In 2019, Ahlan Simsim reached beyond Jordan and Lebanon into Syria and Iraq and across the Middle East to offer children affected by conflict and displacement hope for a better future through our unique integration of in-person early learning opportunities with mass media. We finalized the first season of Ahlan Simsim, our brand-new, local version of Sesame Street, and prepared for its debut, introducing our new Ahlan Simsim Muppet characters Basma and Jad to the world. And at the first-ever Global Refugee Forum, Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) contributed to the collective effort to make early childhood development (ECD) and learning through play a top priority in humanitarian response—with a little help from Global Grover, who brought a spirit of playful learning and curiosity to policy makers and donors.
We came together in early 2020 to celebrate our accomplishments and chronicle our challenges and learnings from implementing Ahlan Simsim’s second year, which can be found in the 2019 Annual Report Executive Summary in English and Arabic. At the time, a newly discovered novel coronavirus had not yet developed into a global pandemic, upending the lives of billions of children around the world—including millions across the Middle East. But looking back through the lens of our new pandemic reality, the progress Ahlan Simsim made in 2019 to reach children and families is ever more important, and the foundation we laid last year will continue to guide us as we address the evolving challenges of this pandemic and beyond.
In 2019, we produced Season One of Ahlan Simsim, which premiered across the Middle East and North Africa in February 2020. Season One consists of 26 episodes of fun, engaging, and educational content with a bold colloquial Arabic language approach based on the input of 29 language advisors. Formative research that informed the development of the show, plus rounds of expert review, helped us refine our content to make it even more effective in giving children the skills they need to manage big feelings.
We expanded our direct services with children and families to all four of our target countries, reaching children and caregivers by engaging them in home visits as well as ECD sessions in spaces like centers for women and children and health care facilities. We also developed new ECD program content this year for our in-person services, including 16 new Sesame-created storybooks and short-form videos featuring the Ahlan Simsim characters.
In order to sustain our impact for years to come, we are collaborating with local actors and government stakeholders to shape and scale Ahlan Simsim, developing ambitious plans with government partners and local actors to work together to enhance the approach to ECD in the region. And with ongoing support from the MacArthur Foundation and additional support from the LEGO Foundation, Ahlan Simsim united with other stakeholders to become a convener and catalyst in the call to prioritize and invest in ECD in crisis and conflict settings.
From the outset, we knew that implementing Ahlan Simsim in a dynamic context would require us to adapt our programming. During 2019, Ahlan Simsim grappled with an increasingly volatile situation in Syria and civil disturbances in Lebanon and Iraq, requiring shifts in timelines and adaptations of programmatic approaches. And then came COVID-19, making the program’s agility even more imperative.
In 2020, the world looks different with in-person learning and other direct services disrupted due to the pandemic. However, the work that we did during 2019 set us up well to continue making responsive adaptations, and now, we are reaching children and caregivers through digital platforms like WhatsApp, a program adaptation with benefits that reach far beyond the COVID context to other current and future crises. And while producing the show in studio was also restricted, we discovered new creative ways to remotely produce a half-hour Ahlan Simsim family special designed to help children and families cope with the “new normal” of the pandemic and continue playful learning at home.
The pandemic is a reminder that flexible, adaptable interventions like Ahlan Simsim are as necessary as ever. These unprecedented circumstances will only deepen the needs of children and caregivers now facing the dual crises of displacement and the pandemic. We are committed to building upon the strong foundation we set in 2019 to continue to reach these families with critical ECD services and educational resources, as well as catalyzing broader systems change to ensure inclusive ECD services for generations to come.