The project in brief
"Every child these days needs education and to stay in safe spaces to learn how to grow positively and build their character. Huzaifa now has a goal and a dream which is something great, and I never thought he would be able to improve this much."
- Mariam, mother to 3-year-old Huzaifa and his 4 siblings, a Syrian refugee living in Ana Aqra – Baalbek, Lebanon
The project is implemented by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Sesame Workshop in the Middle East and North Africa. It began in February 2018. The current phase of funding finishes at the end of 2023, with ongoing design and planning for the growth of the next phase of Ahlan Simsim. With increased support and local partnership, we hope to grow, build, and scale the project and put years of learning to work for millions more children in the Middle East and North Africa.
Ahlan Simsim — "Welcome Sesame" in Arabic—is the largest early childhood intervention in the history of humanitarian response, bringing responsive caregiving and playful learning to crisis-affected children in the Middle East. Reaching children and families wherever they are—from classrooms, health clinics, and learning centers to TVs and mobile devices— Ahlan Simsim combines Sesame Workshop and IRC's proven impact and expertise to deliver contextually relevant services through education, health, and protection systems.
Ahlan Simsim focuses on the whole child's needs—from physical health and developmental milestones to foundational skills and "emotional ABCs", like identifying and managing big feelings. These form a crucial foundation for all young children, especially those who have experienced adversity due to conflict, crisis, and/or displacement. The initiative combines educational media and direct services for children and families: services for children complement support to the circle of people surrounding them, including their caregivers, teachers, and health providers, boosting knowledge and skills around early childhood development (ECD) through in-person and remote parenting programs, digital resources, and more. Operating across a range of contexts which span humanitarian and development sectors, Ahlan Simsim centers the child in defining problems, and works with over 60 local actors, including local authorities, government ministries, and organizations to co-design and implement contextually appropriate interventions that deliver quality programs to children and strengthen the national systems that support them.
Main activities of the Good Practice
Our approach centers partnership, contextualization, and meeting children where they are. Combining IRC’s experience in supporting crisis-affected communities with Sesame’s educational media, Ahlan Simsim is a fully integrated model, reaching families across multiple touchpoints in their lives.
- Mass Media: Ahlan Simsim, an Arabic version of Sesame Street, features both familiar and new locally developed characters with storylines speaking directly to families, providing joyful and engaging stories and teaching children important lessons.
- Direct Services: Programs for children facilitate their healthy development and learning through play and integrated media; programs for caregivers empower them with tools and resources to support their children. All programs are flexible in their delivery: in-person in homes, ECD/women’s centres, schools, and other childcare settings, as well as remotely through phone calls and digital tools for families in hard-to-reach places and during crises. Programming also leverages partners to support local ECD commitment and capacity.
- Systems-Approach to Scale: We partnered with ministries for lasting change, with co-developed solutions meeting nationally identified needs of children, strengthening systems delivering ECD services, and advocating for policy and financial commitments.
- Research & Evidence: We partnered with NYU’s Global TIES for Children Center to conduct three impact evaluations of Ahlan Simsim programs, dramatically increasing the evidence base on ECD in crisis contexts. An evaluation of our remote learning programme in Lebanon showed outcomes on emergent literacy and numeracy skills on par with impacts of full-year, in-person preschools. Another evaluation showed that watching the Ahlan Simsim TV show significantly increased children’s ability to identify emotions.
Elements which helped facilitate the implementation of the good practice
- Considering context: Investment of time, energy, and resources to meet children and families where they are with adaptable, contextualised resources to support young children’s healthy development —by integrating direct services for families in crisis with engaging educational media. Familiar Sesame Workshop characters like Elmo, Cookie Monster, and Grover join new locally-developed Ahlan Simsim friends like Basma, Jad, and Ameera, who have storylines that children in the Middle East can relate to, learn from, and take comfort in.
- Prioritizing local partnerships: building relationships with local civil society partners and national ministries – as well as families themselves - has yielded the broad impact reflected in our ability to reach children at scale and strengthened national systems to ensure long-term sustained impact.
- Long-term flexible funding: Investment from the MacArthur & LEGO Foundations over 6 years that embodied flexibility and facilitated adaptive management, learning and innovation.
- Team culture: Trust, learning, and innovation, with the recognition that we learn as much from what doesn’t work as from what does.
- Evidence-building and sharing: Investments in rigorous evaluation of the impact of our programming alongside robust monitoring systems for quality allowed us to iterate for better content and services, and share with others in the humanitarian and development spaces what worked and what didn’t.
- International Rescue Committee (IRC)
- Sesame Workshop
- New York University (NYU)
- Funding partners: MacArthur Foundation and LEGO Foundation
What challenges were encountered in delivering the project and how were they overcome?
Challenges broadly fell into two categories:
- Approach-based challenges:
- Our goal from the project's onset was to reach children at scale. We achieved this by co-developing and scaling programs with national partners for lasting, system-wide change. We learned that there is no one-size-fits-all approach: each country requires a program tailored to their national ECD model, driven by contextual needs, and advocated for by internal champions. This required significant time and investment to learn how to navigate policy environments, and adjust our internal structures and systems to align as efficiently as possible.
- The multisectoral nature of ECD, encompassing health, nutrition, caregiving, protection, and early learning can be at odds with traditional political, budgetary and humanitarian cluster structures. ECD initiatives often face siloed and fragmented structures with responsibilities spread across many sectors, making them challenging to coordinate and implement.
- Unforeseen Circumstances:
- In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, reaching young children in crisis- and conflict-affected contexts became even more difficult. This added a new element of urgency in reaching populations already experiencing crises, displacement or living in temporary housing or rural communities.
- In 2023, a series of earthquakes struck Gaziantep, Türkiye, and the surrounding region – home to millions of displaced Syrian children and their families – destroying basic infrastructure and resources for already vulnerable populations.
- In 2019, Lebanon entered an acute economic and political crisis and conditions worsened for Lebanon’s most vulnerable. Currently, upwards of 90% of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon fall under the poverty line. In addition to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Lebanon was rocked by the 2020 Beirut Port Explosion, highlighting the government’s inability to solve the multi-layered crises facing Lebanon.
How they were overcome
- Approach-based challenges:
- We began by investing time and resources into collaborating on understanding the needs of each community where we worked, weighing these needs against existing capacity and tools to understand our value in filling the gaps as well as building more diverse local partnerships and working within national systems.
- Unforeseen Circumstances:
- The COVID-19 pandemic made in-person services all but impossible for nearly two years. Still, it inspired new thinking on how to serve hard-to-reach children and families remotely with high-quality, accessible remote programming. The program turned to mobile phones to connect families virtually and leveraged mass media to reach families with Ahlan Simsim video and print materials. When in-person preschool wasn’t possible, Ahlan Simsim pioneered a Remote Early Learning program in Lebanon, combining engaging media with remote instructions from teachers, and relying on caregivers to support their children’s learning at home. By working through caregivers, our impact was two-fold: caregivers trained on activities learned about the importance of ECD and how to support their child’s learning and development, and children continued learning in a fun and playful way at home. Research showed that this program successfully supported children’s learning over 11 weeks —with gains in literacy and numeracy comparable to those seen from a year of full-year in-person preschool—suggesting that remote programming can be a viable alternative to ensure some children aren’t left behind. These learnings will inform future efforts to reach families anywhere in the world when in-person services aren’t possible—whether due to a pandemic, conflict, displacement, or other crises.
- In Lebanon, the team pivoted priorities based on government needs when the context dramatically shifted. The need for flexible services had become apparent during COVID-19, but in Lebanon, where over one million children had been left without an education due to ongoing crises, remote and highly flexible options were key to reaching both refugee and vulnerable host community families.
- This was also a pertinent lesson that applied to programming in Syria – with ongoing displacement, conflict and violence, and economic challenges, as well as the 2023 earthquakes, our teams recognized the need for nimble, adaptable solutions, and drew upon existing resources and rapid response practices to swiftly pivot regular programming to focus on emergency response and early recovery and reach families with critical services.
Results of the Good Practice
As of October 2023, Ahlan Simsim has reached over 2.47 million children with direct services and 27 million through the TV show.
ECD workers have been able to extend their work with children beyond traditional curricula and classroom engagement styles. Caregivers have been equipped with tools to understand, support, and play with their children, through resources such as nutritional recipes, positive discipline, and self-care techniques. Children have been given safe, playful opportunities to learn with engaging, relatable characters to accompany them along the way. Across MENA, we have given children the tools for lifelong learning and success.
“When I finish work now, I make the effort to sit down with my wife and children outside our tent and spend quality time together every day.”
- Hamed, a 35-year-old father living in Northwest Syria, after having been forced to flee from his hometown in Idlib. He participated in the Ahlan Simsim program supporting caregivers.
In what way does the good practice meet one or more of the four objectives of the Global Compact on Refugees?
Objective 1: Ease the pressures on host countries
We seek to do more than offer supportive programs in the short term – we seek to embed the importance of ECD within each system in which we operate, advocating for a shared commitment to supporting a generation of children affected by conflict, crisis, and displacement. To this end, we are co-developing and scaling programs with national partners for lasting change.
As a result, our impact has been both broad and deep. By placing partnership at the forefront of our model, co-developing affordable, contextually relevant solutions and building partner capacity to sustain the foundation we established together, we have successfully worked within existing local, regional, and national systems to strengthen the services offered to children and their caregivers including marginalized communities such as refugees and IDPs. In addition, we have revolutionized policy: at the global level, we have called attention to the critical development needs of children. IRC, Sesame Workshop and a broad range of partners are collaborating with UN agencies like WHO and UNICEF to create a new guidance framework for ECD in humanitarian settings, and have engaged others to put young children at the heart of humanitarian response – whilst sparking movement in the United States, through influencing the Global Child Thrive Act and elevating ECD as a key priority in U.S. foreign aid.
At the national level, we have strengthened governance and budget environments for ECD in each context through advocacy, and successfully created local community engagement champions to educate from the bottom up, and through national leaders from the top down.
- In Iraq, 1,800 schools now run school readiness programs developed with Ahlan Simsim teams preparing children for successful entry into first grade. The government has now added the program to their national education plan mandating the program in all schools across federal Iraq.
- In Jordan, 150 primary health centers (out of about 500 in the country) have integrated guidance and information on responsive caregiving and child social-emotional development into well-child visits. The Ministry of Health plans to expand this program nationally, adding to ECD checklists in child health files and making training on these topics part of health provider’s required professional development training. The Ahlan Simsim team has started working with the Ministry of Health in Iraq on similar training and resources, which are currently offered in health centers across 9 governorates.
- In Lebanon, Ahlan Simsim teams have collaborated with government ministries to develop quality standards for nurseries and conduct assessments of nurseries to guide them on how to improve and meet standards.
- In Syria, Ahlan Simsim has reached over half a million children and caregivers in northern Syria alone despite the extremely challenging context, and made significant progress with local NGOs and authorities on launching sustainable solutions to support ECD through health, education, and other sectors.
Objective 2: Enhance refugee self-reliance
Studies have shown that supporting children in the early years facilitates their long-term success. Ahlan Simsim focuses on the needs of the whole child—from physical health and developmental milestones to emergent literacy, numeracy, and social-emotional skills. The holistic nature of our content and services, which supports children across multiple entry points, meets families where they are with tools to build their knowledge, skills, and social-emotional development - essential components for sustainable, lifelong well-being and success.
Our vision is to build on the strong foundation for supporting ECD that has been carefully constructed over the past six years with Ahlan Simsim. We are currently designing to deepen and expand this work for the next phase of Ahlan Simsim. The lasting change catalysed through its first phase is just starting to take hold, and we are building on the existing investment, learnings, and resources to reach new audiences and sustain progress supporting the development of children affected by conflict and crisis — so they can thrive and reach their full potential throughout their lives.
Are there areas in which support would be required to continue and/or scale up your good practice?
Increased support and partnership will allow Ahlan Simsim to continue providing critical programming and services for children and families, generating evidence, building local partnerships, strengthening systems, and continuing to serve as a global model to ensure that young children affected by crisis and conflict around the world can grow and thrive.
Continued investment would also allow researchers to study the effects of our programming for a generation of children over time—building on our current body of valuable research about how to support children and families during conflict and crisis.
In addition, a large focus is now to share the learnings we’ve generated so far through rigorous research and process reflections for iteration on our content and service delivery internally, as well as with government, humanitarian, and development actors working in the ECD space.
We also plan to leverage the resources we’ve created, the learnings we’ve generated, and the networks we’ve built to scale up our reach to reach as many vulnerable children as we’re able in the contexts we currently operate while adding new contexts in the MENA region that are facing similar challenges.
Heidi Rosbe – Senior Project Specialist, International Rescue Committee (IRC) – Ahlan Simsim - [email protected]; Elana Banin – Policy Advisor, International Rescue Committee (IRC) – Education/ECD - [email protected]; Emily Garin - Senior Director, Sesame Workshop - Advocacy - [email protected]; Sam Friedlander - Senior Manager, Sesame Workshop - Advocacy and Policy - [email protected]