Two new friendly faces in Rohingya refugee camps

Tuktuki, a Sesame Muppet, visits a family in the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar as part of Sesame Workshop’s Play to Learn program. Sesame Workshop recently unveiled the first-ever Rohingya Muppets, Noor and Aziz, who will be featured in new educational content in the camps next year. Credit: Ryan Donnell / Sesame Workshop

Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit that runs the early education TV show “Sesame Street,” last week unveiled two new Rohingya Muppets, Aziz and Noor, to join their famed cast of characters.

This time last year, some 3,000 representatives from governments and the development and aid sectors gathered in Geneva for the Global Refugee Forum -  a three-day meeting to address the needs of refugees across the globe.  

Among the participants was an unexpected furry face. Sesame Workshop’s “Global Grover” sat down with participants - from donors to senior UN leaders - to speak with them about early childhood education. “Grover brought incredible spirit to the Forum,” said Jacqueline Strecker, UNHCR’s connected education officer and the education focal point for the Forum, in an interview with Geneva Solutions. “He made issues more approachable, more child friendly.”

But it wasn’t all play at last year’s Forum. New pledges were made to the Global Compact on Refugees, including to advance an early childhood agenda for displaced children. One of Sesame Workshop’s commitments was to bring high-quality early childhood development media content to children impacted by crisis. 

This week, Sesame Workshop is making good on its pledge, introducing  two new Muppets in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazaar.

Introducing Aziz and Noor Six year old twins, Aziz and Noor are the first ever Rohingya Muppets. They are refugees who speak the Rohingya language and will feature in a series of educational videos in the camps covering everything from maths and science to social and emotional wellbeing. The new Muppets are part of Sesame Workshop’s Play to Learn program, which is being carried out in partnership with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and BRAC, a Bangladesh NGO.  

For the past two years, Sesame Workshop has been meeting with Rohingya parents and community members  to inform the design of the characters and their personality traits.  “The characters are rooted in the Rohingya culture,” Sherrie Westin, Sesame Workshop’s president of social impact and philanthropy, told Geneva Solutions.

Noor and Aziz Together.jpg
Noor and Aziz, the first-ever Rohingya Muppets, will be featured in new educational programs in Rohingya camps next year. Credit: Sesame Workshop.
It was important, for example, that the characters were twins. “Being twins and from the same family allows them to play together in a way that’s socially accepted,”  Westin explained. “We also didn’t want one caring for the other, so it was important they were the same age.” Aziz, the boy character, helps with household chores.  “Gender equity features in our storylines, and it was important that they be equal,” Westin noted. Storytelling, a strong part of Rohingya culture, is also embodied through Aziz, who loves to imagine and perform stories. 

What education experts like Westin also stress is that it’s important for children to see themselves, their experiences and daily lives reflected in the characters and storylines.  “Seeing characters that they can associate with gives them a sense of empathy and allows them to better engage with the educational content,” she said. For many Rohingya children, Aziz and Noor are the first characters in multiple media formats to look and sound like them.

Education in emergencies While new attention and funding has been directed towards education in emergencies, including at last year’s Forum, it has long been underfunded.  According to the Global Education Cluster, the coordinator of global humanitarian education activities based in Geneva, between 2014 and 2017, education received on average 35 per cent of what it had requested, as compared to 60 per cent across all sectors over the same period. According to Education Cannot Wait, a fund that supports education programming worldwide, education received just 5.1 per cent of the total humanitarian funding in 2019. Only a fraction of that goes towards early education.

Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, is home to more than 800,000 Rohingya refugees who fled conflict in neighbouring Myanmar, more than half of whom are children. According to Strecker, high quality early education was identified as a need by Rohingya parents, and the Play to Learn program responds to this void. 

Many Rohingya children suffered trauma after being forced to flee their villages in Myanmar and witnessing violence. Play-based activities are critical for  learning and have been shown to “mitigate some of the detrimental, long term effects of displacement and trauma,” John Goodwin, chief executive of the LEGO Foundation, the donor behind the Play to Learn programme, has said

Strecker also stresses the importance of linking any education program with future opportunities. “Having their education credentials recognised locally is key; that’s what gives refugees a passport to engage in future levels of education,” she says. The Play to Learn program aligns with pedagogical approaches outlined in the Bangladesh government’s guidelines for informal education.

Interruptions of education According to UNICEF, more than 1.6 billion children globally have been affected by school closures this year and more than 24 million children are projected to drop out of school due to Covid-19.  “We’ve seen the largest disruption in education the world has ever known,” said Westin.  “These are children who lacked access to early education even before the pandemic. Without this investment in early education they are at risk of being left even further behind.”

Many governments have adapted to school closures by using varied media for learning, including radio and podcasts.  The Play to Learn programme uses both high and low tech mediums -  projectors, radio PSAs, playbooks and storybooks. As Strecker highlights, “what’s important is having high quality content, that is localised and what people can identify with.”

By the end of 2020, Play to Learn will reach over 73,000 Rohingya children, and nearly 10,000 children in the surrounding host community. Strecker says that despite the interruptions brought by Covid-19, “it’s a great example of what we can achieve collectively in 2021.”