Since 2017, Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) have worked together to give children affected by conflict and crisis in the Middle East the support they need to learn, grow and thrive. The name of the program is Ahlan Simsim, meaning "Welcome Sesame" in Arabic.

Ahlan Simsim is the single largest early childhood intervention in the history of humanitarian response, a transformational program that combines on-the-ground services for families in crisis with engaging educational media.

Ahlan Simsim has shown that quality early childhood programming can have powerful benefits for children whose lives have been upended by conflict and war. It demonstrates the power of partnership, co-creating a holistic new approach to early education in conflict zones. We’re combining Sesame Workshop’s engaging content with the IRC’s decades of humanitarian experience to reach children and families wherever they are – from classrooms to health clinics, learning centers to TVs and mobile devices – through on-the-ground services and a new, locally-produced Arabic-language version of Sesame Street.  

The combination of media and early childhood development programs provides holistic support for children, involving the important people in their lives – caregivers, teachers and health providers. Together, the IRC and Sesame Workshop are advocating for children affected by conflict and partnering with governments to ensure access to quality services for all children. 

The “Ahlan Simsim” TV show

Ahlan Simsim,” is an all new Arabic-language TV show that combines classic characters like Elmo and the Cookie Monster with new characters such as “Jad,” who was forced to flee his home, and “Basma,” who welcomed Jad when he arrived in his new community.

The show features new Muppets who, like their audience, have been displaced or experienced conflict. The engaging Muppet characters act out stories that help refugee children understand their emotions and experiences, supporting young refugees and their families to learn, grow and thrive.

The show combines Sesame Workshop’s history of proven educational content with the IRC’s decades of experience in conflict zones to help young refugees master fundamentals like counting and the alphabet, as well as cope with their experiences of crisis. Together, we hope to build a better future for young refugees, their families and the communities that host them. 

The Ahlan Simsim TV show reached over 23 million children across the Middle East and North Africa in its first five years alone.   

Two girls laugh with Elmo at a Ahlan Simsim location.
Elmo, a popular character in the Ahlan Simsim show, shares a laugh with two young Syrian refugees.
Photo: Sesame Workshop
Programs and services

The Ahlan Simsim initiative delivers a variety of in-person and remote programs and services that help children learn and develop. Programs include preschool classes and “school readiness” programs, parenting support programs, training for teachers and daycare providers, and integration of early childhood development information, tips and activities into health care support.  

Ahlan Simsim works closely with local and national partners to embed these quality programs into national systems to achieve long term impact and improve early childhood development outcomes for children for years to come. Ahlan Simsim programs and services have reached over one million children as of December 2022. 

Ahlan Simsim sessions run weekly at Azraq camp and give children the chance to be children again.
Weekly Ahlan Simsim sessions at Azraq camp give children the chance to be children again—with the help of familiar Sesame Street characters.
Photo: Ahmad Al-Jarery for the IRC
Disability Inclusion

There are 240 million children around the world living with a disability. Many of them are excluded from early childhood development and education programming. The IRC and Sesame Workshop strive to provide all children with opportunities that build a foundation for lifelong learning.  

For example, the TV show introduced Ameera, a character who uses a wheelchair or crutches due to a spinal cord injury, enabling children with disabilities to see themselves reflected on the show.   

We also train staff on disability inclusion, create accessible physical spaces, and provide activities and materials tailored to the needs and abilities of all children. 

Saeed stands, smiling, at an Ahlan Simsim workshop. The walls behind him are decorated with characters from the TV show.
After fleeing war in Syria with his mother, Saeed, who has Down Syndrome, found it difficult to adapt to his new community. The Ahlan Simim program helped Saeed express his emotions, engage in learning and make new friends.
Photo: Mohammad Abara for the IRC

Ahlan Simsim programs are being studied by New York University’s Global TIES for Children. Researchers are conducting three impact evaluations – doubling the amount of evidence currently available on education and development programs aimed at children affected by crisis or displacement. 

Studying the impact of Ahlan Simsim’s programs and approach will also help to provide further guidance for other programs seeking to help refugees and their host communities. 

Tamer, a 7-year-old Syrian boy born with brain atrophy, sits on the floor playing with toys in an IRC healing classroom.
Conflict and crisis have impacted the lives of more than 35 million children in the Middle East, including Tamer, 7, whose family was displaced from their home in Syria.
Photo: Mohammad Awad
A bold commitment

We are honored that the MacArthur Foundation selected Ahlan Simsim, a joint IRC and Sesame Workshop program, as the winner of its 2017 100&Change competition, a one-time $100 million grant to "make measurable progress toward solving a significant problem of our time." The LEGO Foundation awarded an additional $100 million to Sesame Workshop, BRAC and the IRC to bring the power of learning through play to children affected by the Syrian and Rohingya refugee crises. This funding launched the Play to Learn project, complementing MacArthur’s investment.

A generation at risk

The International Rescue Committee and Sesame Workshop are working together to solve one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time. Here's a look at the problem, by the numbers:

5 million

Conflict and displacement can negatively impact children’s development and threaten their long-term health and wellbeing.

Syrian children's lives are marked by conflict and chaos.

See how the IRC helps in Syria

1 in 10

Children who have experienced conflict and displacement are particularly vulnerable to the long-term effects that prolonged stress has on the developing brain.

of all registered Syrian refugees are under the age of five.

See how the IRC and Sesame Workshop help

1 in 5

Early childhood education can help reverse the harmful impacts of early stress and trauma while restoring the possibility and hope for a brighter future.

children worldwide are born into a conflict setting.

Read about IRC education programs

We know now that the average length of displacement for a refugee is close to 20 years. And that's why it's a total tragedy that less than 2% of all humanitarian aid funding goes on education, even though half of the world's refugees are kids.

David Miliband
President and CEO, International Rescue Committee, interviewed on "60 Minutes"