Getting a Euro-Arab conversation going about young children’s media needs in an era of forced migration

Co-authored with Naomi Sakr, Professor of Media Policy, University of Westminster.

How do young children whose families have traveled thousands of miles to escape terror and conflict make sense of their unfamiliar new environment? And how do young children who are familiar with that environment make sense of the arrival of their unfamiliar counterparts from abroad? Broadcasters in European countries receiving large numbers of refugees over the last few years have come up with various responses, most of them aimed at older teenagers or adults, such as news bulletins delivered or subtitled in Arabic. A big opportunity still exists for communities engaged with young children’s media, as practitioners, advocates and policy-makers, to think about how to integrate the needs of families and younger displaced Arabic-speaking children into their forward planning.

The UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has just awarded a grant to promote dialogue between members of these communities in Europe and the Arab world. Based on findings from three years of AHRC-funded research into the media experiences of young Arabic-speaking children, the new project aims to share that knowledge through a series of workshops that will facilitate discussion between those in Europe who regulate, commission, fund, produce or comment on children’s content and Arab expert practitioners with experience of children’s media.

Our research has shown how crucial it is for young refugee and migrant children to see themselves truthfully represented on European screens at a time when they and their parents are likely to be feeling disoriented and homesick, particularly if their extended families are scattered across different continents. Yet practitioners and NGOs working towards that representation need to know more about the cultural and social context of the countries from which these families and children have fled. The project’s first workshop will address questions such as:

  • How is childhood defined and understood in the Arab world and how have Arab children’s media needs been articulated by industry and policy-makers at home?
  • What do Arab children know about the world from the screen content available to them on pan-Arab outlets and online? Where are the gaps
  • What are the shared information and entertainment needs, wants and experiences of young Arabic-speaking refugee and migrant children and European-born children who have watched them arrive? How can this knowledge be used to reach out to children and reflect diversity?
  • What practical screen content policies and production recommendations are best for giving children a voice and promoting their social engagement and future participation as citizens in new environments?

The economic realities of content production for children everywhere and the rapidly changing distribution landscape present challenges to investment at national level. But the crisis of forced migration and the media needs of new arrivals and settled children call for a widely-targeted initiative that can have economic viability by transcending national borders in terms of both producers and audiences and being delivered on a range of platforms and devices. Examples of children’s content shared among European public service broadcasters, despite language barriers, demonstrate that stories for young children can be compelling with minimal spoken narrative and that children have enough in common across cultures that they are not bewildered by different story settings.

Precedents for using young children’s screen content to promote diversity, inclusion, respect and understanding are surprisingly rare; at a workshop in Malaysia, run by the authors of this blog, participants from several Asian countries repeatedly cited Sesame Workshop’s international partnerships as pioneers in this regard. In the Arab world those partnerships have addressed early childhood development needs throughout the Gulf, Egypt, Jordan and Palestine. In its new initiative with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Sesame now aims to use mass media and direct services to meet the needs of refugee and displaced children in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.

In focusing on media tools as a means to help reshape visions of the future for children and young people who have experienced trauma, the Sesame-IRC project and AHRC-funded workshop series are complementary. In the latter, Arab practitioners will help European creatives, regulators and others gain more nuanced insights into differences between Arab and European media ecologies and approaches to childhood, so that they in turn can better envisage ways to promote citizenship and local social engagement among displaced children and their peers in an increasingly diverse Europe.

The first workshop will take place in Manchester on 4 December 2017, linked to the Children’s Global Media Summit in the same city. The workshop title is: ‘Children’s Screen Content in an Era of Forced Migration: Facilitating Arab-European Dialogue’. Visit http://cgms17.com/satellite-events/ for more details and how to register. Further events will take place elsewhere in Europe in 2018.

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