Meet the Muppet Bringing Joy to Syrian Refugees

Meet the Muppet Bringing Joy to Syrian Refugees

Five-year-old Ibrahim and 6-year-old Aziza play with Tonton. The siblings from Aleppo, Syria, were just toddlers when the bombing started in their hometown. Their family fled to Lebanon in 2014. “I am happy I can go to school,” Aziza says.

SourceJacob Russell/IRC

Why you should care

Because these kids need a wild-haired creature in their lives.

Like Sesame Street’s the Merry Monster, Tonton has wild orange hair, and like Elmo, she prefers to speak in the third person. But this pint-size Muppet with the outsize personality, known for being somewhat disorganized and prone to fits of restless curiosity, doesn’t live on Sesame Street. Well, not exactly. She lives in a place called Hikayat Simsim, the Jordanian version of Sesame Street that premiered in 2003, when Tonton was just 4 (she hasn’t aged much).

Brought to life by puppeteer Fatima Amaireh, Tonton and her best pal, Juljul, along with Jiddo Simsim (Grandpa Sesame, played by Issa Sweidan), made the show one of the most popular in modern-day Jordanian television — and that was before the International Rescue Committee decided to bring Tonton and her long-distance neighbors Elmo and Grover to refugee communities across the Middle East. This past December, the MacArthur Foundation announced that it was awarding the IRC and the Sesame Workshop its 100&Change grant — $100 million for “bold solutions to critical problems of our time” — to create a comprehensive early childhood education program for displaced Syrians throughout the region.

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Tonton, a Muppet from Hikayat Simsim, Jordan’s local version of Sesame Street, reads a storybook with a refugee family in Lebanon.

Source Tara Todras-Whitehill/IRC

The IRC and Sesame Workshop have begun the initial planning of Sesame Seeds — the working title for their initiative — but already the organization promises to take aim at the toxic stress faced by refugees. “We’re known at Sesame Street to tackle the tough issues generally, but we couldn’t help but open the papers and see every day the situation of refugee children,” says Sherrie Westin, vice president of global impact and philanthropy for Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization associated with the PBS series.

“Giving the children ways to learn and confront their trauma and providing parents with strategies to cope with its effects, we realized, could be one of biggest undertakings in social impact — and the largest childhood intervention in the history of humanitarian response,” Westin says. Recent research has shed light on the effect of toxic stress, which floods the developing brain with dangerously high levels of stress hormones, risking permanent damage to biological and neurological systems and leaving children at severe risk for impairments that will follow them throughout their lives.

Tonton may not have deep pockets (or any pockets), but she has the power to help change attitudes about girls in more closed countries.

Some other nongovernmental organizations that work in the field, while not questioning the value of the program, believe there is more than one methodology to break the cycle of poverty. “That said, early childhood development is crucial in the context of displaced people in man-made and natural disasters — the best thing you can do is establish a sense of normalcy for kids affected by it,” says Scott MacMillan, a senior adviser with BRAC. “There have been wars going on; societies have been destroyed. Who is going to rebuild them? This generation? No, the children growing up in the camps now.”

Sesame Workshop and the IRC officially launched their pilot program at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. A year later, with their 100&Change funding application pending at the MacArthur Foundation, Tonton and Elmo — among other Muppets — traveled to northern Jordan to visit children at the Za’atari refugee camp, mugging for the cameras and making the media rounds with Sherrie Westin and IRC’s CEO David Miliband.

“Elmo thinks it’s important to know that everybody is the same deep down, and that’s very important,” said the furry red creature during a Facebook Live interview with CNN in October. “It was really sad because Elmo’s new friends told Elmo that they had to leave their homes because it wasn’t safe for them to stay. And that made Elmo really sad and sometimes a bit scared.”

Tonton, however, wasn’t about to let Elmo steal the show. When she danced during her visits, so did the children. And when Tonton gave big hugs, uttering her familiar catchphrase “I know, I know” in Arabic, the children hugged back.

“Tonton appeared in the tent and she was just one with the kids,” says Sarah Smith, senior director of education at the IRC. “You see kids who have been quiet or withdrawn become comfortable with the puppet, and realize as an educator of children who have been through so much and are having a hard time learning, that these characters allow them to relax and open up the opportunity to learn that’s not possible with even the best teacher.”

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Syrian children living in Bekaa, Lebanon, are excited to receive a surprise visit from Tonton.

Source Jacob Russell/IRC

Two months later — and with much fanfare — the IRC and Sesame Workshop announced the grant.

To begin, Sesame Workshop will create a new Arabic version of Sesame Street for delivery through television, mobile phones and other digital platforms to equip an estimated 9.4 million refugee children with language, reading, math and socioemotional skills. Next up, Sesame Workshop and IRC will transform community sites, schools (both formal and makeshift) and other points of aid into centers stocked with storybooks, video clips and activity sheets for play-based learning.

The final component — aimed at reaching 1.5 million refugee children — consists of home visits and support sessions to connect 800,000 caregivers with health workers who will pass on Sesame Street materials, including storybooks, toys, games, mobile apps and parenting guides.

“There has been a substantial commitment to education in emergencies with political leaders and NGOs standing up and saying there is a problem here,” Smith says. “But less than 2 percent of humanitarian aid is going to education. Just stating the problem is not enough — we need people with power putting money behind those commitments.”

Tonton may not have deep pockets (or any pockets), but she has the power, together with her trailblazing sisters across the world, to help change attitudes about girls in more closed countries. These include Zari, a 6-year-old who wears a hijab and wants to become a doctor on Baghch-e-Simsim (the Afghan co-production of Sesame Street); 5-year-old Chamki, an insatiable reader on Galli Galli Sim Sim (the Hindi-language adaptation of Sesame Street); Kami, an asymptomatic, HIV-positive 5-year-old on South Africa’s Takalani Sesame; and Khokha, who dreams of becoming a writer, a police officer or an astronaut on Egypt’s Alam Simsim.

Each one a relatable character showing girls they can do, and be, more: “I know everything, everything,” Tonton proclaims with unbridled confidence, “and I am good in doing anything.”

OZYProvocateurs

People shaking up their fields, old dogs doing new tricks, and those who like to bring the ruckus.