Looking Back at Year Four of Ahlan Simsim: A Year of Growth
We share lessons on scaling early childhood interventions in crisis situations from Ahlan Simsim’s fourth year.
In 2021, Ahlan Simsim entered its fourth year and hit its stride. Having spent the previous year adapting in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we set out to push our boundaries in year four. We extended our program’s reach across broadcast, digital, and direct services; grew our suite of innovative, award-winning content; and furthered the process of scaling up Ahlan Simsim’s early childhood programs in partnership with government ministries and humanitarian actors.
As worsening political and economic crises intensified the impact of conflict, displacement, and instability on families across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) program region, the need for our work only deepened. While the pandemic has remained a destabilizing factor, governments began to ease restrictions, allowing schools and learning centers to reopen for in-person programs and services. Despite many context-based challenges faced by children and caregivers in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, Ahlan Simsim’s reach grew in services and programming thanks to the flexible approach at the core of our work and the adaptations we made the previous year. We reflected on the fourth year of our program in the Ahlan Simsim 2021 Annual Report Executive Summary in English and Arabic.
Through early childhood development (ECD) services delivered by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in partnership with local organizations and national government partners, we reached 550,000 children and caregivers across Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. As we entered a more mature phase of the program, we shifted our focus to scaling and partnerships to ensure the long-term sustainability of Ahlan Simsim’s impact on the systems that deliver ECD across the region and around the world. In 2021, Ahlan Simsim’s success leveraged additional funding for ECD in conflict settings, including complementary grants for our work from USA for UNHCR; Unilever and the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO); GSMA; and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). In the United States, Sesame Workshop, the IRC, and partners advocated for and championed the passage of the Global Child Thrive Act in January of 2021, further elevating ECD as a key priority for U.S. foreign assistance and setting a benchmark for the global humanitarian community.
Entering our second year of broadcast, we produced two new seasons of Ahlan Simsim, our award-winning Arabic-language Sesame show for children in the MENA. Season 3 of Ahlan Simsim debuted in the spring of 2021. By that time, 5.2 million children in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria had watched the show, and with the new season, the show reached 12 million viewers across the wider MENA. The fourth season of our show aired in the fall of 2021, and we expanded our digital promotion, reaching 16 million views through our YouTube channel. Looking ahead to future seasons, we also set out to develop new curriculum and characters to deepen diversity and meaningful representation in our program.
In year four, we began creating Ahlan Simsim’s newest character, Ameera. An eight-year-old Muppet who uses a wheelchair and crutches to get around, Ameera is a natural leader with a great sense of humor and a passion for science and basketball. Ameera was created to share new perspectives and experiences with children in the MENA and around the world, and appears in live-action content, animated segments, and Ahlan Simsim direct services materials. Her development dovetails with IRC’s work throughout year four and beyond to ensure that programs are inclusive and meet the needs of all children and families, including training staff on disability inclusion, ensuring physical spaces are accessible, and providing activities and materials tailored to the needs of all children. This focus on disability inclusion underscores the power of the combination of mass media and direct services that makes our partnership unique and impactful.
Research and learning continued to inform Ahlan Simsim in year four. The easing of COVID-19 restrictions in the second half of the year allowed us to make significant progress on our program evaluations in Jordan and Lebanon. In July 2021, the Jordanian Ministry of Education issued a decision to allow in-person education for the following academic year, allowing us to plan for data collection and intervention implementation in our mass media evaluation. In a performance evaluation of season 3 of Ahlan Simsim, up to 92 percent of caregivers reported that their children learned to apply the show’s strategy of “Stop, Notice, Think” to help them regulate their emotions, empathize with others, and overcome challenges. Caregivers reported that Ahlan Simsim is a safe and trusted show that aligns with their values and that it teaches their children to learn through play, makes learning fun, and expands their emotional vocabulary.
Despite improved conditions and vaccination rates, the COVID-19 pandemic continued in year four, as did its impact on families and children. As our program models evolved to reach families through digital and hybrid models, our growing educational content continued to be a valuable resource for children.
The IRC continued to adapt and evolve direct services and programs to meet the needs of families, including the remote and hybrid versions of our program models. The project expects to surpass its goal of reaching 1.5 million children through a combination of IRC and NGO partner-delivered services and programs, and the work of embedding ECD into national systems in partnership with government ministries.
At the time of writing this piece, Russia’s war in Ukraine has continued for over eight months, destabilizing global geopolitical dynamics. Russia remains a significant political and military actor in relation to Syria and a critical economic actor within countries across the region. In Lebanon, persisting political and economic crises have significantly impacted families, particularly those affected by conflict and displacement. While our colleagues in Lebanon have adapted our approaches to this limiting context, volatility remains a risk to families and to our ability to reach them with our content and services. The IRC continues to work closely with the international community in Lebanon to coordinate approaches to support families.
As we transitioned to year five, political, economic, and health crises are ongoing, but Ahlan Simsim is resilient and well-positioned to meet these challenges. We continue to develop new strategies and opportunities to reach children and caregivers in crisis settings with thoughtful and innovative educational media and ECD services. Ahlan Simsim remains committed to serving the needs of children affected by conflict and crisis today and transforming national and international humanitarian systems to better serve children and families in crisis in the future.
By René Celaya, Managing Director, Ahlan Simsim, Sesame Workshop, and Marianne Stone, Regional Program Director for Ahlan Simsim, International Rescue Committee