Looking Back at Year Three of Ahlan Simsim: A Year of Adaptation

René Celaya of Sesame Workshop and Marianne Stone of International Rescue Committee share lessons for early childhood interventions in crisis situations from Ahlan Simsim’s third year.

Jad (right) shares a story with friends in Amman, Jordan (left). Photo by Ryan Donnell/Sesame Workshop.

Year three of Ahlan Simsim put our program’s flexibility to the test. In February 2020, we debuted the first season of Ahlan Simsim, a new Sesame show for a rising generation of children across the Middle East and North Africa. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we adapted our program implementation models to ensure that children affected by crisis and displacement would continue to receive vital early childhood development services. And as children and caregivers transitioned to at-home learning, we designed and produced special content to help young children make sense of their new reality and transformed our production to deliver new seasons of Ahlan Simsim amid the pandemic.

Earlier this year, we reflected on the year’s lessons and successes in the Ahlan Simsim 2020 Annual Report Executive Summary and also marked 10 years since the beginning of the war in Syria, which has displaced at least 12 million people to date, 5 million of whom are children. These children are at the heart of Ahlan Simsim. They and millions of others affected by crisis and conflict continue to face a pandemic that exacerbates existing barriers for the most vulnerable. This has only underscored Ahlan Simsim’s significance and the immense need for greater investment in early childhood interventions in crisis settings.

The onset of the pandemic forced a pause of in-studio production in Jordan, so we found new, creative ways to remotely produce two half-hour specials designed to help children cope with the “new normal.” We further adapted our production model to keep our cast and crew safe as they created new episodes for children across the region to enjoy in forthcoming seasons.

We expanded the show’s social-emotional curriculum to reflect the new socially distanced reality for children. In August 2020, season 2 premiered with episodes filled with stories, activities, and strategies to help children identify, express, and manage the big feelings they were experiencing. We continued this approach in developing season 3, incorporating additional social-emotional strategies to help children manage their initial impulses and adapt in challenging situations.

Every season of our show is informed by formative research and expert review by local early childhood specialists to ensure relevancy, relatability, and impact. In November 2020, the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival awarded Ahlan Simsim the Teachers’ Choice Award. In testing with displaced Syrian families in Lebanon, 94 percent of parents expressed that their children could relate to the award-winning episode, which focuses on Jad’s memories of home and his new life on Ahlan Simsim.

Our program models had to evolve so that we could maintain contact with families who were already engaged in Ahlan Simsim. Where in-person direct services were no longer possible, we supported children and caregivers with digital materials, successfully delivering services through WhatsApp, SMS, and phone calls — a strategy with applications for current and future crises around the world. Despite pandemic restrictions, we were able to maintain a high level of safe in-person services, which made up 60 percent of Ahlan Simsim’s reach in 2020 across Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

This year, we began reaching even greater numbers of children through collaborations with local actors and government stakeholders. With the Jordanian Ministry of Education, we broadcast Ahlan Simsim on their educational channel, piloted a two-week School Readiness Program to support caregivers preparing children to enter first grade during the pandemic, and began distributing content through their broadcast and digital platforms. These local partnerships help to shape and scale our initiative, extending Ahlan Simsim’s reach to children in host communities today and for years to come.

Working with our partners BRAC and the LEGO foundation, we have integrated our advocacy across our Ahlan Simsim and Play to Learn programs, calling on the international community, donors, and national governments to prioritize and invest in early childhood development (ECD) in crisis settings during and beyond the pandemic. We also championed the needs of children experiencing crisis and displacement, advocating for the inclusion of ECD in the UN’s COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan and the UNICEF COVID-19 Humanitarian Action for Children Appeal.

Ahlan Simsim is generously funded by MacArthur and the LEGO Foundation. In 2020, we were able to expand our work with additional support from GSMA’s Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation Fund, Unilever and the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office, and the Bezos Family Foundation. This support is not only integral to strengthening our work but also generates learnings for current and future crisis settings.

We designed Ahlan Simsim for a complex and dynamic context. In 2020, continued destabilization in Syria only deepened the existing displacement crisis, presenting geopolitical challenges for our field work. The global pandemic added a new layer of difficulty, intensifying existing social and economic hardship faced by displaced families. Amid these layers of crisis, parents and caregivers have become their children’s primary teachers, assuming an even more critical role in their early learning.

The challenges of 2020 have only deepened the need for interventions like Ahlan Simsim, even as they underscored the power of media as an integral tool for reaching families in crisis settings. And as the pandemic continues to challenge in-person education, we’ve continued to evolve our content.

Year three of Ahlan Simsim may have called for unanticipated flexibility — but the adaptations we put into place have provided lessons that have enhanced our work and provided insights for current and future crises around the world. Now in year four, we have redoubled our commitment to creating engaging early learning opportunities for children in crisis settings, extending our reach, and transforming how the humanitarian system works for children in crisis.