Building relationships beyond research: How Sesame Street engages Syrian refugee communities

“I’m going to miss you,” Rawan said, with tears in her eyes. “We’re going to miss you too,” I said. “We are going to miss all of you. You should be so proud! You’re doing this all by yourselves. You don’t need us here.” We had just wrapped up the second day of data collection at Azraq refugee camp in Jordan. My colleague, Kim, and I had just spent the last week training a team of 16 people to conduct media research, testing Arabic versions of Sesame Street shows with Syrian children and parents who’ve been displaced by the Syrian crisis and are now living in Jordan. Some of the team members were Jordanian, and some were Syrian refugees living in the very communities where the research studies were conducted.

Conducting child interviews after viewing episodes to assess appeal and comprehension.

This pilot testing is part of a larger project with the International Rescue Committee. Together, Sesame and the IRC are working to create an early childhood development program designed to reflect the unique experiences of displaced families. The media research we conducted will provide our team with important data regarding appeal, comprehension, and relevance — and the findings will help inform the format, content, and dialect needs for future production.

We worked with a team of people whose language we did not speak and whose life experiences we could not fathom. We communicated every word through interpreters and a Sesame Street colleague; and we gestured and smiled our way through our moments without interpreters — especially when we wanted to show how much we appreciated their hard work. Many did not have research experience, but wanted to do well and were so excited to do well. Maan, an Azraq camp resident, was particularly eager to learn and help with the study, and said he was just happy to work. “Why work if you are not going to work very hard and well?” he said when I complimented him.

Debriefing with the research team leaders after our first pilot testing day.

After a few long, grueling days of technical training, we were amongst researchers. Though our goals were to teach Sesame research methods and build capacity with researchers on the ground in Jordan, we ultimately connected with people — not numbers and methods. I was not only proud of the team who could take pride in their own research skills and no longer needed our guidance, but I was proud of the bonds of trust and friendship we built together. So on this final day together, seeing the tears in Rawan’s eyes and smile on her face as she said, “I’m going to miss you,” I was happy to be among my fellow researchers and now friends.