Meeting the Eyes of Children Displaced by Conflict: A Nomad’s Journal

“Love is love is love is love.” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award acceptance speech — a sonnet, really — has been echoing in my mind and across social media for months, resurrected with every current events-prompted call for unity, compassion, and kindness. I feel an added verse in my own heart: kids are kids are kids are kids.

As someone who’s built a career around educating and entertaining children in a million different ways, I know that, as different and varied as kids can appear to be, what they all have in common far outweighs what sets them apart. They are humankind’s most valuable asset, our shared future, and precious beyond measure. So when I get the opportunity to travel around the world and see amazing kids who are struggling — against their own circumstances and surely against the odds — to learn and thrive and succeed, I am moved and inspired to think about the ways Sesame Workshop can help.

A couple of weeks ago, I joined up with a remarkable group called Global Nomads Group and traveled to Jordan. It is a beautiful place, filled with warm, friendly people.

Jordan is a nation of refugees, with a long tradition of sheltering neighbors from areas like Palestine and Lebanon. But its population is swelling at a rate that taxes resources beyond limits: the number of people living in Jordan has grown from six million people when the Syrian crisis began to nine million today.

We visited the International Rescue Committee’s Mafraq Center, where doctors, nurses, psychologists, and many volunteers serve the refugee community in that area. They provide far more than basic care, tending to refugees as the whole people they are. Not only are medical needs tended to, but the center offers a beauty salon to train women, self-defense and women’s empowerment sessions — even a Zumba class! Two mobile units go off to help displaced people in remote surroundings for a week at a time. 
 But, as much as is being done to help, it goes without saying that major stressors remain. Because it is exceedingly difficult for Syrians to get legal work permits, the men have a hard time psychologically. Often the women in the household find employment, some of them leaving the home alone for the first time in their lives. The children attend local schools, in an afternoon double shift — in other words, Jordanian children attend classes in the morning; refugee students later in the day. Most of the public schools are underfunded, with little money to develop or maintain infrastructure, much less enrich the students’ experiences. Capacity is a serious issue. But all of the schools I visited were filled with devoted, inventive teachers and excited kids, eager to learn.

Of course, many of those who are able to get to school must contend with many other stressors. The trauma and toxic stress they have had to endure is hard for many of us to imagine: forced to flee homes, friends and communities; the loss of loved ones, often violently; and a new, unasked-for life where instability and uncertainty are the only constants.

The IRC is doing tremendous and admirable work. I’m proud to say Sesame Workshop recently teamed up with this remarkable group to combat the damage wrought by toxic stress, bringing lessons and learning to refugees in the Syrian response region. We believe combining the IRC’s expertise on the ground, delivering services directly to populations in crisis, with our experience in early childhood education — not to mention our lovable, laughable characters — can change a child’s trajectory — and can do so on a large scale. A pilot program is already underway.

This is not out of character for Sesame — in fact, it is a prime example of being true to our roots. Not only was Sesame Street created to help democratize education by leveling the playing field and bringing quality preschool right into the living rooms of underserved populations, it was once about as grassroots as you can get. From its earliest days, Sesame was focused on outreach — ways to ensure that all kids had the chance to watch and benefit from the show. Mobile viewing vans brought Sesame Street directly to families: from inner-city neighborhoods, to Appalachia, to the Choctaw and other Native American communities, to the children of migrant workers. Today, we regularly interact directly with remote communities in our international co-productions, for example bringing our Indian show, Galli Galli Sim Sim to crowds of excited neighborhood children on a repurposed vegetable cart. And, right now, in the United States, we are launching something else we’re pretty excited about called “Sesame Street in Communities,” a support network for families, teachers, caregivers and service providers filled with free resources that support families in lots of ways.

There are parallels to be drawn from Mafraq to Main Street: what it comes down to is getting help — in the form of medicine, shelter, education, laughter, hope and other essentials — to the kids who need it most. I am grateful to have seen so much of this in action, and more grateful that I get to participate. Some of my fellow travelers, including Kaya Henderson, former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor, remarked how amazing it would be if Sesame Workshop could do for children in the Syrian response region what it has been able to do for generations of kids in the United States. We’re on it — and with our teammate, the IRC, and the help of lots of other partners big and small, we’ll be able to make a real difference.

The Global Nomads Group motto is, “fostering dialogue and understanding among the world’s youth.” That’s a great goal, and I love being a global nomad, but what I want to help raise are global citizens — kids who aren’t walled in (or out), or limited by their own direct experience, but open to the wonder and joy offered by others who might seem totally unfamiliar than what they understand. What better skill to teach in the 21st century than the ability to accept and communicate with someone who seems completely different? Because we know that difference is only on the surface. Kids are kids are kids are kids, and we want to help them all.

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