R is for Refugee

Just how helpful is a television show in dealing with trauma? 

Manjot Kaur // Contributor

With the ongoing war in Syria, the international refugee crisis has broken the record set in World War II and is still rising. In addition to those disappointing reports, the average length of refugee displacement is over 20 years. That’s 20 years of hoping to meet their basic needs of safety, security and survival. While most of us take these for granted, these psychological and safety needs may be missing from the life of a refugee child, leaving them deprived of the resources to cater to needs of love, belonging, esteem or self-actualization. 

While hope of refugees returning to a safe home is yet to be accomplished, treatments and secondary solutions for the traumatic experiences of refugees are frantically being sought out by NGO’s worldwide. In 2016, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) teamed up with experts in children’s educational media at Sesame Workshop, where the creators of Sesame Street developed a strategy to help the youngest of the Arabic speaking refugee children cope with toxic stress. Children cover almost half of the total refugee population, and early childhood development (ECD) plays a crucial role in a child’s life as it sets the building blocks for their intellectual potential. 

During this time the MacArthur Foundation set up a competition with a prize of $100 million to grant to an organization that was able to present an efficient solution towards the global refugee crisis, as deemed by their board of judges. TV show Ahlan Simsim (Arabic for “Welcome Sesame”), won the $100 million grant in 2018, with the proposed aim to handle “trauma, [and] toxic stress among refugee children in the Middle East,” as stated by the head of the IRC, David Miliband, in an interview with CBC News reporter Lesley Stahl.  

Because of the studies supporting the positive correlation of improvement in academic standing and watching Sesame Street, and the alarming lack of funding towards ECD for children of war torn areas from humanitarian aid, the creation of this TV show is innovative and forward thinking, and I am optimistic to see how it may evolve education through mass media.  

A 1970’s study showed that children who had access to Sesame Street were far more likely to do better in school, and less likely to fall behind when compared to children who didn’t have Sesame Street on their home cable. 

While mass media is a major component of the work carried out by this collaborative program, there is additional, direct support provided in the form of home visits by IRC educational facilitators. With the restrictions made by the Syrian government against humanitarian aid in Southern Syria, the program is optimistic in its hopes of reaching out to more than Northeast and Northwest Syria. 

While critics of this show may point to the dilution of mass media as a crucial weak spot in the show’s impact, prioritizing children of displacement and of war torn countries, along with increasing awareness, may prove to have a sizable effect on the early development of these children, and give them the support needed for adversity faced in their lives. 

Ahlan Simsim may not tackle the root problem of the Syrian war itself, nor do away with the game of chess being played at the expense of innocent civilians in the Middle East. However, the show offers a temporary solution for the stress placed onto the impressionable young minds of refugee children, and for that aim it is a step in the right direction. 

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