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'Play to Learn' Humanitarian Response Introduces Rohingya Muppets to Sesame Street

By Roya Sabri

Noor (short for Noor Yasmin) and Aziz are two of the newest members of the Sesame Street family. Introduced earlier this month, the six-year-old Muppet twins are modeled after Rohingya children living in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh - the world’s largest refugee camp - and aim to become teachers and friends.

 “Noor and Aziz are at the heart of our efforts to bring early education and learning through play to children and caregivers affected by the Rohingya refugee crisis, who have been impacted tremendously by the dual crises of displacement and the COVID-19 pandemic,” Sherrie Westin, President of Social Impact for Sesame Workshop, said in a press statement.

“These are two very special Sesame Muppets—for most Rohingya children, Noor and Aziz will be the very first characters in media who look and sound like them. Rooted in the rich Rohingya culture and informed by extensive research and input from Rohingya families, Noor and Aziz will bring the transformative power of playful learning to families at a time when it’s needed more than ever before,” Westin added.

The need for Rohingya children to thrive in a decades-long refugee crisis

The Rohingya people have faced decades-long discrimination, targeted violence and statelessness in Rakhine State, Myanmar. Many have found temporary shelter in Bangladesh. Since 2017, over half of the 745,000 Rohingya who have fled to Cox’s Bazar have been children, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

In such a protracted crisis, families, and especially children, need more than basic humanitarian aid to grow and succeed in their endeavors. The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that 61 percent of the world’s refugee children attend primary school — in low-income countries stooping to less than half. Secondary school enrollment drops even lower. These numbers matter to more than the Rohingya. They point to significant populations of undereducated children and young adults.

Diminished education can be measured in economic impact, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found in its recent study on education during this year’s pandemic. The study identified that a learning loss of one quarter during the crisis could result in an almost two percent decrease in GDP in 2100.

An “all out push on a massive scale” for refugee early education

Sesame Workshop’s multifaceted program aims to protect refugee families from long-term, long-range consequences, by providing a basic educational need for children up to the age of six. More than a year in development, Noor and Aziz are part of the not-for-profit’s Play to Learn humanitarian initiative that reaches Rohingya children through a partnership with the NGOs International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Bangladesh-based BRAC. The initiative is also supported by New York University’s (NYU) international research center Global TIES for Children and the LEGO Foundation.

The principle behind the program is to bring learning and healing to displaced children through play. In the show, Noor and Aziz (beside other familiar Sesame Street characters such as Elmo) teach children about math and science, as well as social-emotional well-being and health and safety, writes Sesame Workshop in a press statement, adding that the lessons are founded on five characteristics of “playful experiences” that prepare the ground for learning: joyful, meaningful, actively engaging, iterative and socially interactive.

Rohingya refugee children attending class in Bangladesh
Rohingya refugee children attending class in Bangladesh (Image credit: Sir Barnaby/Wiki Commons)

“Learning through play also helps children to develop the holistic skills, including creativity and social-emotional skills, which are vital to survive and thrive in this rapidly changing world,” Sarah Bouchie, Chief Impact Officer at the Lego Foundation, which has granted $100 million to Play to Learn initiatives, said in a press statement.

These lessons reach the children through BRAC’s infrastructure, its Humanitarian Play Labs and direct services. During the pandemic, BRAC and IRC outreach workers adapted services to include regular phone call check-ins, as well as audio, written and poster content specific to coronavirus-related needs. In the new year, facilitators will be trained, and video segments, storybooks and printed educational materials will be integrated into direct services, writes Sesame Workshop in a press release.

Earlier this year, Sesame Street aired a new show in Arabic called Ahlan Simsim, translated Welcome Sesame, for Syrian children displaced in Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. By implementing yet another program in the same year, Sesame Workshop demonstrates its lack of hesitation in expanding its refugee response. “It’s an all-out push on a massive scale,” the nonprofit explains on its website. “Because an investment in these children is an investment in a more peaceful and stable world for everyone.”

Developing a model for child-focused humanitarian aid

Sesame Workshop has estimated that its programs for Syrian refugees could reach 9 million children and families at scale and has called Play to Learn the largest early-childhood intervention of any humanitarian response.

“One of the big gaps in humanitarian assistance for so long has been that only about 3 percent of humanitarian aid goes to education, and of that, only a tiny fraction goes to early childhood education,” Scott Cameron, the executive producer of the Ahlan Simsim, told Fast Company in January. “As a global community, we need to figure out ways to really create new models to help children in need in these crisis settings.”

To continue developing and scaling their approach, Sesame Workshop and its partners are testing their educational methods for the first five years to determine what tools and strategies work best and connect with kids. The study will double the amount of evidence available concerning which early education programs are most effective in crisis situations, Sesame Workshop writes on its website. The data will be shared with the humanitarian community so as to ensure progress continues and does not rest solely on the backs of Muppets.

“We look forward to sharing our findings with the entire humanitarian community so that we - and others - can better reach and teach the world’s most vulnerable children,” Sherrie Westin, President of Global Impact and Philanthropy at Sesame Workshop, said in a press statement from NYU.

Image credit: Sesame Street/Facebook

Roya Sabri headshot

Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn

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