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Sesame and the IRC join forces to help Syrian refugee children

A new effort to help the youngest refugees
Sesame and the IRC join forces to help Syrian refugee children 14:02

There are more people living as refugees around the world today than at any time since World War II. And with conflicts dragging on for years, being a refugee now often means not going home for decades. That's literally a lifetime for millions of young children.

As we first reported last fall, the refugee crisis has sparked a partnership between two of the country's leading non-profit institutions: Sesame Workshop, creator of "Sesame Street." And the International Rescue Committee, the IRC -- a refugee assistance organization originally founded by Albert Einstein.  For 50 years, Sesame Street has been teaching young children that one plus one equals two; but by teaming up with the IRC to help the youngest refugees, it's hoping that one plus one can add up to far more.

This is the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, it houses 77,000 Syrian refugees. This is Azraq camp, it houses another 35,000. It's hard to fathom that these tens of thousands are just a fraction of the more than 6 million Syrians now living as refugees, most of them for the last 4-8 years. And nearly half of all of them are children.

Thousands are living in refugee camps due to the Syrian civil war

Lesley Stahl: So this is the big waterhole. 

The first thing we noticed when we arrived at Azraq camp with our guide Laila Hussein of the IRC, was the kids.

Lesley Stahl: The little kids carrying the water.

Laila Hussein: Yeah.

There's no running water here, no indoor plumbing. Toilets are outside and shared by 6 families. The day we visited it was 111 degrees.

Lesley Stahl: Ask these young fellows if they come to get water every day.
[Kids Raise Hands]

Laila Hussein: They carry the water. 
Lesley Stahl: You carry? How old are you guys? How old?

BOY IN ARABIC: Sitte. [Holds Up Six Fingers]

Lesley Stahl: Six. 

[Next Boy Holds Up Eight Fingers]

Lesley Stahl: Eight!

Meeting the needs of kids like this is not what the humanitarian aid system was set up for.

Correspondent Lesley Stahl meets children in a refugee camp

David Miliband: The humanitarian sector has prided itself on keeping people alive.

David Miliband is head of the International Rescue Committee.

Lesley Stahl: Traditionally I guess that refugees flee war, go home when the war ends.

David Miliband: Yeah, the theory is that you just keep people alive until they can go home. But we know now that the average length of displacement for a refugee is close to 20 years--

Lesley Stahl: Twenty years?

David Miliband: Close to 20 years. And that's why it's a total tragedy that less than 2% of all humanitarian aid funding goes on education, even though half of the world's refugees are kids.

And only a tiny sliver of that 2% goes to educating young children.  

David Miliband: And that's a problem, because we know that it's the earliest years that count the most.

No one knows the importance of those earliest years, and how to reach and teach kids in them, better than "Sesame Street."

It's been using television to educate kids in the U.S., including tackling tough subjects like racism and death, for five decades. And it's done local versions in other countries. In 2016, Sesame Workshop and the IRC had been strategizing about how they could collaborate to help refugee children when a new competition was announced. The prize: a stunning 100 million dollars.

David Miliband: The MacArthur Foundation offered $100 million to any organization who was ready to, quote-unquote "solve a big global problem."

Lesley Stahl: A global problem that was intractable.

David Miliband: We defined the global problem we wanted to tackle was trauma, toxic stress among refugee children in the Middle East. 

David Miliband

In the final pitch to the competition's judges, Miliband and his Sesame Workshop counterpart Sherrie Westin presented a two-pronged plan: Sesame Workshop would create a new show for the Middle East and the IRC would dramatically expand its services to young refugee kids directly, including where they're living.

Lesley Stahl: And they gave you $100 million.

David Miliband: Yeah, $100 million is not as much as it sounds. Because it's--

Lesley Stahl: It isn't?

David Miliband: It's over--

Lesley Stahl: It sounds huge.

David Miliband: It's over (LAUGH) five years. And we're delivering in-person services to over a million kids and educational content via TV to nearly 8 million kids. So it's a big enterprise.

The new muppets for "Ahlan Simsim"

Production of the new television show, "Ahlan Simsim," meaning "Welcome Sesame," is well underway in Jordan.  It stars a spunky purple girl Muppet named Basma, a boy Muppet, Jad, who has just moved into the neighborhood, and their pal and comedic sidekick, a mischievous baby goat.

Jad isn't labelled a refugee on the show, but there are hints. He's voiced by a Syrian puppeteer and, in this episode, where the other characters are showing each other their favorite childhood toys, Jad can't.

Jad (Translation): My toy is not with me. I left it behind in my old home when I came here.  

Scott Cameron: This was one of the more challenging episodes to craft. 

Scott Cameron, a longtime sesame producer who is running this new show, explained that the primary focus is not on letters and numbers, but on emotions like fear, anger, loneliness, and determination. This episode deals with Jad's sadness about his lost toy drum, but also Basma's feelings of caring for her friend.

Scott Cameron: We want every episode to identify an emotion, but then give really concrete actions so that children can learn what to do.

Lesley Stahl: So what does she do?

Scott Cameron: So she decides she's going to make a drum to replace the drum that Jad no longer has--

Lesley Stahl: It's so sweet.

How Sesame Workshop's Muppets are teaching emotional coping tactics to children 03:48

The show will air in 20 countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf starting in February. And if you're wondering how refugees will see it, we were surprised to see that satellite dishes are prevalent in the camps, where the IRC has been ramping up its part of the plan. Direct services to young refugee children, as we saw in this early childhood center the IRC runs in the Azraq camp, where pre-school age kids can come to play and learn. Video clips and storybooks featuring Basma and Jad will soon be part of lessons here. Given these childrens' age, Laila Hussein told us it's likely none of them has ever been outside this camp.

Laila Hussein: When I meet children in the camp, I notice that they have very limited imagination. 

And very limited information.

Laila Hussein: I met children. They don't know that the egg coming from a chicken.

Lesley Stahl: Really? 

Laila Hussein: They don't know that the fish live in the sea. It's our responsibility to bring the world inside the camp. We can't, like, take them out, but we can bring the world inside.

A volunteer from IRC's home-visit program works with 20-month-old Belal

And bring the world inside their makeshift homes. The IRC runs a home visit program that sends trained volunteers, refugees themselves like this woman, to visit 3,000 refugee families once a week, each time with an age-appropriate educational activity. Here, a home-made picture book for 20-month-old Belal.

The idea is to teach the child and, more importantly, encourage essential one-on-one interactions with the parent. Belal is one of nine children in this family that was driven from their home in Syria by intense shelling and now live, eat, and sleep in two adjoining metal structures -- brutal in the 110+ degree heat.

Lesley Stahl: So how many years have you been in this camp?

FATHER: Hamsni. Five. Hamsni.  

Lesley Stahl: Here five years?

The older boys told us they still remember life back in Syria.

Lesley Stahl: What do you remember? 

OLDEST SON (Translation): I remember our home. I also remember my friends, the school I attended, my grandad's house.    

But the younger kids only know this life. Their mom told us the home visits have been a huge help as she tries to parent under these conditions.

MOTHER (Translation): Before, I didn't give Belal enough praise, because I was always busy with housework, cooking.

Lesley Stahl: You pay more attention to the children after these visits?

MOTHER (Translation): For sure. Even the children with one another, they developed a closer bond. Like if one hands the other a glass of water, the other would go 'thank you.'

FATHER (Translation): (LAUGHS) She now forgets to give me attention.

Lesley Stahl: (LAUGHS)

MOTHER (Translation): Not at all. He's getting all the attention. 

Lesley Stahl: How would you describe the pressures that these parents are under? 

David Miliband: The pressures that these people face are not just the material deprivation.

Lesley Stahl: Lost everything.

David Miliband: But the greatest danger they face is hopelessness. These are people who want something if not for themselves anymore, then at least for their children. 

Some of the most vulnerable refugee children are those whose families live outside the refugee camps, in what are called informal tented settlements. Basically tents on the side of the road. Tens of thousands of families live this way, and the IRC is bringing its home visit program to them as well.

A volunteer works with Mohamad and his family

We watched as this volunteer worked with year-and-a-half-old Mohamad and his dad, a day laborer on a nearby farm, on the concepts of in and out. Mohamad's mother didn't want to be filmed, but his grandmother was eager to speak with us.

Their smiles and welcome were warm, as was their pride in showing us the home they left behind in Syria. But the pain of living this way for the last five years was never far from the surface.

GRANDMOTHER (Translation): Sometimes I am able to hold myself together, but sometimes I can't. I sometimes wish I was in the desert with no one around me to scream out all the negative energy inside of me.   

Their despair was palpable. Which is why one goal of these visits is to help parents keep from passing it on to their young children.

Lesley Stahl: I see you with your sons. I can tell that you don't want them to feel any of your unhappiness. 

FATHER (Translation): [NODS] You're absolutely right.  Even sometimes when I am troubled, and I see them, I smile for them. I want them always to feel happy, and reassured. 

Like the homemade drum Basma gives Jad to replace the one he left behind.

The hope is that the combination of this show, and the array of services along with it, will give these kids a fighting start. Studies to measure the impact are already part of the plan, so if it works...

Lesley Stahl: You're gonna have this model for refugees around the world.

David Miliband: There's no reason not to take this to refugee communities from Myanmar who are in Bangladesh, from south Sudan who are in Uganda. Because this is a model that should work for every child who's forced to endure the trauma of being a refugee.

Lesley Stahl: You know, when people see the footage that we shot, they're not gonna see how hot it was. And they're gonna see children well dressed, obviously fed.
David Miliband: You're not gonna be able to see the moments of hopelessness.  But I hope that by seeing the smiles, you'll see the potential. And you'll come away thinking, "What a waste not to give these kids every chance and to give more kids the chance of what these kids are getting."

Basma and Jad made their debut in February, and shows are being broadcast in 20 countries. With home visits suspended due to COVID-19, the IRC is sending games and learning activities to parents virtually, and Sesame has broadcast two specials with Basma and Jad to address kids' needs in the crisis.  

Produced by Shari Finkelstein. Associate producer, Jaime Woods. Field producer, Amjad Tadros. Broadcast associate,  Maria Rutan. Edited by Peter M. Berman.

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