In refugee camps everywhere, there is no shortage of curious young minds: more than half of the world's displaced population are children. But the barriers to receiving a quality early education are huge.
"There are 250 million children whose developmental potential is at risk around the world," said Sarah Smith, Director of Education at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), in an interview with VOA. "The global displacement crisis is bigger than ever before, and there are about 12 million children under eight who are displaced from their homes and in need of support."
In response to the growing Syrian refugee crisis, the IRC, together with Sesame Workshop — the nonprofit behind the children's program Sesame Street — have teamed up in a new initiative to provide quality education to young children displaced by conflict and persecution.
The pilot program, which is still in development, focuses primarily on refugees and other young children affected by conflict in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and northern Iraq.
Along with seven other semifinalists, they are in the running for a $100 million grant by the MacArthur Foundation's "100&Change" global competition, an award that would help facilitate their early education efforts in destination countries like Lebanon and Jordan, where hundreds of thousands of refugee children are displaced.
"When we looked at the refugee issue and the fact that some 65 million people are displaced, half of whom are children, we knew this was an issue where we had to step up," said Sherrie Westin, Executive Vice-President of Global Impact and Philanthropy at Sesame Workshop.
Westin told VOA that part of what makes their education model a success is their ability to address specific needs of children, using relatable characters that speak a child's language and understand their needs.
"To be in that environment, to have a furry little muppet like Elmo, or our Jordanian Muppet Tonton, and see those children light up — to see them laughing and playing and engaging — that gives you hope. And we would reach those children with that kind of joy of learning, but with proven educational content, that honestly can change their lives."
Model with proven results
Sesame Workshop and the IRC's early education model — including social emotional skills — is supported by neuroscience research, which finds an inextricable link between a child's cognitive stimulation and brain development.
"The area where we can have the greatest impact … is reaching children in those first five years of life — in terms of brain development, in terms of helping them mitigate some of the negative impacts of trauma, or what is often called toxic stress," Westin said. "If we reach these children who are in very challenging circumstances with quality early education, with strategies for their parents and caregivers for engagement, we have a chance of giving them a much greater shot at succeeding in life."
The IRC says its education-minded approach and existing infrastructure, combined with Sesame Workshop's engaging content, makes for a complementary partnership. Smith notes that a bulk of their outreach is directed to adult parents — children's first line of support.
"The centerpiece of any early childhood development program for us will focus on parents: supporting parents, meeting them where they are, knowing that they have to work long hours, that they might face medical challenges, and often times are struggling themselves," Smith said. "To provide them support and services so that they can be great parents for their children is essential."
Whether their lesson is in classrooms or via smartphones in tents, the IRC and Sesame's message to families everywhere remains unchanged: inclusion, acceptance and understanding help children in more ways than one.
"When we say our mission is to help all children grow smarter, stronger and kinder, we really mean it," Westin said. "I think there's a benefit to all of us if all children have an opportunity to be all three."