Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee

Educating children displaced by conflict and persecution

$100 Million Award Recipient 22DEC65E-EE7D-45A6-9FFF-9FB137E4E12A

Group of smiling children with hands in the air

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.

Key Facts

Around the world 6.5 million people are fleeing war and persecution, more than at any time since World War II. Half of those displaced are children.

The average refugee family is displaced for 10 years.

Less than two percent of the global humanitarian aid budget goes to education, and only a sliver of all education aid goes to early childhood education.

Sesame Street reaches children in 160 countries, making it one of the largest educators in the world. The International Rescue Committee provides services to over 26 million people in 40 countries.

The Solution

Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee will help heal the scars of war and cultivate the full potential of an entire generation. Delivered through mass media and direct services, our program 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:

Mass Media

A locally-produced television program, broadcast and made available on digital platforms, will reach 9.4 million children in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, with engaging characters with whom children can learn and relate;


A caregiving program will be delivered through home visits and mobile messages; and


An early learning program will be delivered in community and NGO centers and government preschools, providing teachers with digital and print lesson plans and educational content. The Home and Center components will marshal frontline service professionals to serve 1.5 million of the most vulnerable children.

Our Program 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: Mass Media, a locally produced children's television show; Home, a direct service program offering home visitation and caregiving support; and 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 the Home component; 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).

    Executive Summary: July 2019

    In 2018, Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee began implementing 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. Year one of Ahlan Simsim began with a nine-month Discovery Phase: a time to revisit 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. To learn more, please read the 2018 Executive Summary Annual Report, which highlights key program updates.

    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
    Will Fowler, Vice President, Operations, 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

    sesame 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.

    More Information

    Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee project website ›

    Project Contacts 

    Hallie Ruvin, Senior Director of Strategic Communications, Sesame Workshop
    Flavia Draganus, Director of Communications, International Rescue Committee

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

    Note to Media 

    Members of the media seeking comment or to interview a 100&Change semi-finalist, finalist, award recipient, or staff person should call MacArthur Communications at 312.516.1547 or email Ambar Mentor-Truppa.

    The Finalists Live Presentation