Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee

Educating children displaced by conflict and persecution

The Problem

The Syrian refugee crisis is the defining humanitarian issue of our time. It challenges our morals, imagination, leadership, and global stability. Failing to act can cast a long shadow: a lost generation of children whose lives are forever defined by their experience of war. Few Syrian children have opportunities to learn and play; many are neglected; some have been exposed to extreme violence. They are at risk of "toxic stress," a biological response to prolonged and severe adversity that disrupts a child's brain development. As adults, they may suffer poor health and struggle to find employment and rebuild their society.

Yet the story of these children's lives is still being written. Research shows that nurturing care
and learning can reverse the effects of toxic stress, and skills developed in early childhood last
a lifetime.

The Solution

The International Rescue Committee and Sesame Workshop will help heal the scars of war and cultivate the full potential of an entire generation. Sesame Seeds, delivered through mass media and direct services, will use proven techniques to measurably transform children's learning and social-emotional skills and mitigate the effects of toxic stress. Through extensive research, we have developed a solution that is intense enough to be life-changing but cost-effective enough to be scalable. 

The solution has three components: 1) Sesame Seeds Mass Media, a television program
that will reach 9.4 million children in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, with engaging characters
with whom children can learn and relate; 2) Sesame Seeds Home, a caregiving program
delivered through home visits and mobile messages; and 3) Sesame Seeds Center, an early
learning program delivered in community and NGO centers and government preschools,
providing teachers with digital and print lesson plans and educational content. Sesame Seeds
Home and Center will marshal frontline service professionals to serve 1.5 million of the most
vulnerable children.

Sesame Seeds will mitigate some of war's most harmful consequences and empower today's victims to be tomorrow's nation builders.

What's Changed

The team made the following changes to its proposal since it was first submitted in October of 2016, informed by additional research, project development, and authentic engagement with communities of interest—defined as beneficiaries, those who might suffer harm, other funders, and competitors.

  • Delineated three components to the project: Sesame Seeds Mass Media, a locally produced children's television show; Sesame Seeds Home, a direct service program offering home visitation and caregiving support; and Sesame Seeds Center, an early learning program delivered in community centers and government preschools.
  • Conducted research to assess the appeal and relevance of Sesame content and to inform development of materials, characters, and curriculum; piloted Reach Up and Learn, the basis for Sesame Seeds Home; conducted RCT (randomized controlled trial) to test platforms for alternative messaging about early childhood development for parents.
  • Refined the project based on knowledge gained through user-centered design and extensive community engagement, including a decision to provide dubbed versions of media into two Kurdish dialects and English, in addition to Arabic (the colloquial dialect).

About Our Team


The Sesame-IRC team encompasses a diversity of backgrounds. Experienced in the fields of early childhood education and development, advocacy, production, peace and human rights, public health, technology, management, and public relations and marketing, team members collaborate and use their skills to better the world for children everywhere. 

Estee Bardanashvili, Senior Producer, International Social Impact, Sesame Workshop
Nada Elattar, Director of Educational Programs, International Social Impact, Sesame Workshop
Jennifer Kotler Clarke, Vice President, Research and Evaluation, Sesame Workshop
Shari Rosenfeld, Senior Vice President, International Social Impact, Sesame Workshop
Sherrie Westin, Executive Vice President, Global Impact & Philanthropy, Sesame Workshop
Ravi Gurumurthy, Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Katie Murphy, Senior Technical Advisor for Early Childhood Development, International Rescue Committee
Mark Schnellbaecher, Regional Director for the Middle East, International Rescue Committee
Sarah Smith, Senior Director, Education, International Rescue Committee
Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Courtney Sale Ross Professor of Globalization and Education, Co-Director, Global TIES for Children Center, New York University

More Information

View the Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee project website ›

Project Contacts: 
Lizzie Weinreb Fishman, Vice President, Strategic Communications, Sesame Workshop, 212-875-6618 (tel)
Flavia Draganus, Director of Communications, International Rescue Committee, 212-551-2971 (tel)

Twitter: @SesameWorkshop@SesameStreet@YellowFeather@theIRC 
Facebook: @SesameWorkshop 
YouTube: SesameWorkshop

Related Reading

Advancing Early Childhood Development: From Science to Scale
The Lancet Special Series 

Early Childhood Development Coming of Age: Science Through the Life Course
The Lancet

Safe Spaces: The Urgent Need for Early Childhood Development in Emergencies and Disasters

Why Early Childhood Development is the Foundation for Sustainable Development

The Finalists Live Presentation

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