Elmo Joins the Forever War

"Sesame Street" is heading to Syrian refugee camps, a blessing for kids with little hope. Better yet, experts say, Elmo and friends can help fight extremism.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
refugee crop

The Muppets are getting ready to embark on a new mission: venturing to camps holding millions of child refugees from the Syrian civil war.

In Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon, there are some 2 million Syrian children who have fled the horrors of the 6-year-old civil war to live in primitive camps. Aid organizations struggle to ensure they get the basics — food, shelter, and (relative) safety — but little else.

The Muppets are getting ready to embark on a new mission: venturing to camps holding millions of child refugees from the Syrian civil war.

In Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon, there are some 2 million Syrian children who have fled the horrors of the 6-year-old civil war to live in primitive camps. Aid organizations struggle to ensure they get the basics — food, shelter, and (relative) safety — but little else.

That’s where the team behind Sesame Street saw an opening, said Sherrie Rollins Westin, executive vice president of the show’s nonprofit arm, Sesame Workshop. “If there are major issues that have an impact on children, we look for where we can make a difference,” Westin said, speaking this month on the sidelines of Foreign Policy’s CultureSummit in Abu Dhabi.

Sesame Street teamed up with the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian aid organization, to begin testing programming for children in Syrian refugee camps in Jordan in 2016. If all goes well, they hope to have Sesame Street programming running in the camps within a few years, tailored to children whose lives were upended by conflict.

Bringing furry American Muppets to Syrian refugee camps may sound like the fuzziest kind of soft power. But it could offer a glimmer of hope to children who’ve been robbed of a childhood. And retired military and former government officials say it could have another big side effect: helping starve terrorist groups like the Islamic State of its next generation of fighters. Cookie Monster, Elmo, and friends, that is, could pack as powerful a punch as a drone strike.

“I think it’s a brilliant idea and phenomenally positive,” said David Barno, a retired U.S. Army ranger and former commander of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan. The military alone could never root out terrorism, he told FP, while childhood education is one of the most potent and underappreciated antidotes to extremism.

“If we’re not doing enough in aid, development, childhood education, we’re going to have to keep fighting terrorists,” he said. “Almost all military folks who served out in Afghanistan and Iraq recognize that.”

The Islamic State certainly does. The terrorist group set up its own education programs to groom the next generation of fighters in Iraq and Syria. Through textbooks and phone apps, the Islamic State teaches kids math with AK-47s and grammar with tanks.

“The extremists are preying upon younger and younger children,” said Farah Pandith, who held senior positions in three Republican and Democratic administrations. “It isn’t just 25-, but 8-, 10-, 12-year-olds we need to focus on,” said Pandith, former U.S. special representative to Muslim communities. The United Nations recorded 274 cases of the Islamic State recruiting child soldiers in 2016, using children to fight, execute hostages, and carry out suicide bombings.

Sesame Street offers a real alternative, said Ammar al-Sabban, a “Muppeteer” for the Arabic version of Sesame Street based in the United Arab Emirates; younger fans would know him better as Cookie Monster or Elmo. His passion for childhood education drove him to dump a cushy, 10-year career as an architect to grab hold instead of a red, fuzzy, bug-eyed critter.

The first Arabic version of Sesame Street kicked off in 1978 but came to an abrupt end in 1990, when its studio in Kuwait was destroyed in the first Gulf War. The United Arab Emirates revived the regional broadcast in 2015, and Sabban joined shortly thereafter.

“We don’t flat-out talk about it here, but whatever extremism happens usually happens because there’s no alternative for people,” he said. “That’s where I think we make a huge difference. We get to deliver really positive messages of equality, of tolerance, of acceptance for other peoples,” he said — all antithetical to the Islamic State’s ideology. “Education is what can counter extremism.”

If it sounds corny, there’s hard research to back it up. A slew of neuroscience studies show the greatest return on investment is early childhood education, where brains under 5 develop at the fastest rate — and when they are most affected by conflict or trauma.

Sesame Street is in 150 countries around the world, and local versions do indeed appear to have made a difference. Take Sesame Street’s show in Afghanistan, Baghch-e-Simsim, for example. The show reaches 3 million children around the country. It features Zari, a wildly popular female Muppet that focuses on female empowerment and education in a country where the United Nations estimates only 17 percent of women and girls can read or write. One study of 101 children who watched Baghch-e-Simsim showed a 29 percent increase in measures of gender equity than among children who didn’t watch the show.

Or Sisimpur, the Bangladeshi version of Sesame Street that reaches 11.5 million children. Sesame Workshop commissioned a study that found 4-year-olds who watch the show scored 67 percent higher on math and literacy than those who didn’t watch. Or Takalani Sesame, the South African version that was widely lauded by international organizations for introducing Kami, an HIV-positive Muppet, in 2002 at the height of the country’s AIDS epidemic.

Westin said the show hopes to have a similar impact in Syrian refugee camps, where countering violent extremism is but a welcome byproduct of the main goal: childhood education. Something more is sorely needed on that front, she noted. Only 2 percent of funding for refugees worldwide goes toward education, and only a sliver of that is focused on the early years.

“This is now about how do you create a future,” she said. “If we’re not reaching children with education, then what is their path?”

Reaching refugee children is as important as it has been in decades. The U.N. said that refugee numbers in 2016 are higher than at any time since World War II. Of the 65 million refugees worldwide, nearly half are children. Of those, 8 million are under the age of 8. And they’re not stuck in refugee camps for short stays. The average refugee lives in a camp for 17 years.

Pandith said the soft-power approach has to be part of a bigger, sustained effort. “We tend to look at a program and say, Can this thing solve everything? It isn’t just a one-off,” she said. She lauded Sesame Workshop’s plan, and said, “We need to build it into a larger mosaic of experiences.” But she said the “U.S. government is very slow in understanding that.”

It’s getting slower. President Donald Trump’s proposed budget would cut all funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the public TV that usually carries Sesame Street. And he has vowed to gut the “soft power” side of American power like the State Department and USAID, a move widely criticized by military veterans and experienced diplomats and development experts. “We don’t do soft power,” Nikki Haley, Trump’s U.N. envoy, said in April.

Barno calls that type of thinking “strategic malpractice.”

But Westin and her team aren’t waiting for the debate in Washington to play out. They’ve begun testing programming tailored to children in refugee camps, and Sabban and his friends Elmo and Cookie Monster are hopeful.

“These puppets can really pack a huge punch,” Sabban said.

Photo credit: RYAN HEFFERNAN/Sesame Workshop

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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