Sesame Workshop Impact Story: Supporting children in response to humanitarian emergencies in MENA 

Over the past three years multiple disasters have impacted populations in the Middle East and North Africa – including the Beirut port explosion, Türkiye-Syria earthquakes and the ongoing violence in Sudan. Sesame Workshop’s Ahlan Simsim initiative, which received a GSMA Innovation Fund grant between 2019-2021, creates the Ahlan Simsim show and additional child- and family-friendly video content that addresses the emotions, experiences and concerns that children face during humanitarian emergencies. Since 2020, Ahlan Simsim was able to respond to crises by quickly deploying their existing content in Arabic through digital platforms.

Arabic: A dynamic language

Ahlan Simsim means ‘Welcome Sesame’ in Arabic. The Arabic language is one of the most widely spoken in the world, used daily by more than 400 million people. In the Middle East and North Africa, Arabic is used extensively with a number of different dialects spoken. The content of Ahlan Simsim uses a combination of colloquial dialects and Modern Standard Arabic which is widely understood across Arabic speaking countries and communities. This has enabled Ahlan Simsim to deploy, adapt and produce content for different contexts at the onset of an emergency.  

Responding to Emergencies

By harnessing the reach that social media provides, Sesame Workshop was able to make Ahlan Simsim resources visible to caregivers to support children through traumatic events, and during the below listed disasters content was distributed rapidly to provide immediate support:

  • Beirut Port Explosion

The Beirut port explosion disaster in Lebanon on 4 August 2020 killed at least 178 people and physically injured more than 6,500 individuals. The Ahlan Simsim outreach campaign on Facebook and Instagram targeted caregivers within a 50-mile radius of Beirut. The digital campaign addressed some of the emotions children were experiencing (fear, sadness, anger, frustration) as well as how to manage emotions and support perseverance. The campaign resulted in 18 million impressions on Facebook and Instagram, reaching over 2 million individuals, equivalent to 30% of the target audience available on social media.

  • Türkiye-Syria Earthquakes

In response to the devastating earthquakes that hit southeast Türkiye and northwest Syria in February 2023, Sesame Workshop ran a digital campaign to support affected families. The campaign provided mental health video content to help support kids and families following a traumatic event, focussing on the feelings of fear, anger, sadness, frustration, loneliness and nervousness. During the outreach campaign 75% of the Arabic speaking mothers in Turkey available on Facebook and Instagram, were reached and a 62% average engagement rating was achieved. On YouTube, there were 3.2 million views, with a 20% view rate and 2.4 million interactions, with a 41% interaction rate.

  • Unrest in Sudan

Since April 2023, thousands of children and families have been affected by the unfolding violence and political unrest in Sudan. While digital advertising is not possible on Facebook and Instagram in Sudan, Sesame Workshop used YouTube to support the needs of kids and their families affected by the violence in Sudan. The campaign featured Ahlan Simsim videos in Arabic with tips for parents on how to care for themselves during crisis, how to recognise signs of stress in young children, how to comfort children, and how to keep calm during such difficult times. Sesame Workshop also prepared a trauma packet in Arabic, adapted for the Sudan context, that was posted on the Ahlan Simsim website, which was linked to the landing page of the YouTube campaign. While the target audience of Arabic speakers on YouTube in Sudan is limited, the campaign delivered 2.8M impressions, 660K interactions and 155K views on the videos.

GSMA Humanitarian Connectivity Charter

Mobile connectivity underpinned the deployment of Ahlan Simsim content during the above listed crises, enabling some of the affected child populations to engage with therapeutic and supportive content on mobile devices. Ensuring that households and family units have access to connectivity in an emergency requires close cooperation between humanitarian organisations, Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) and often governments. The GSMA Humanitarian Connectivity Charter, launched in 2015, enables stakeholders across sectors to work together to improve preparedness and resilience and respond to humanitarian crises. The three principles of the Charter are:

  • To enhance coordination within and among MNOs before, during and after a disaster.
  • To scale and standardise preparedness and response activities across the industry to enable a more predictable response.
  • To strengthen partnerships between the mobile industry, government, and the humanitarian sector.

Best Practice Notes for the United Nations General Assembly 2023

Ahlan Simsim is the largest early childhood development initiative in the history of humanitarian response. As the 2023 United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York fast approaches, three notes of best practice from the Ahlan Simsim initiative should be highlighted, and ideally, replicated by other humanitarian actors. Firstly, pre-position digital content and resources so that they are ready to be quickly and efficiently deployed at the onset of disaster to deliver support without delay. Secondly, recognise the value of lingual malleability and adaptability of content by considering the number of countries and contexts where specific languages have reach in, such as Clear Global’s tips for effective humanitarian data collection made available in Arabic. And thirdly, provide resources in a variety of languages as this paves the way for greater inclusion and accessibility. This is why this blog is available in both English and Arabic.

The GSMA Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation programme is currently funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), and supported by the GSMA and its members.
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