‘Ahlan Simsim’: Arabic TV show helps children deal with COVID-19 anxiety

A new season of ‘Ahlan Simsim’ is here — and it’s taking on the COVID-19 pandemic in a child-friendly way.

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“The new season aims to help young children make sense of their new reality amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The episodes start in the form of a video play date, reflecting the way many families are staying connected while social distancing,” says Head Writer Thouraya Hamda.

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‘Ahlan Simsim’ follows best friends Basma and Jad, both nearly six years old, as they explore the world. But their reality has changed since season one.

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These 26 episodes are designed to help children process the “big feelings” they might be experiencing due to the pandemic — such as stress, anxiety and frustration. Some techniques include belly breathing, or drawing your feelings out.

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“This season, each episode is framed by a video play date with all the ‘Ahlan Simsim’ friends who are staying home to stay healthy. Basma and Jad identify and express a big feeling, such as frustration, fear, or determination, and learn simple strategies to manage it,” says Estee Bardanashvili, Managing Producer, Refugee Programs.

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“Playful learning is at the heart of ‘Ahlan Simsim’. We know that play is an important part of childhood, but it’s also a critical way that young children learn basic skills and become resilient … Basma and Jad’s video play date is complemented with educational games that promote literacy and numeracy, as well as moments of checking on their friends, like Elmo, Kaki and Gargur, and lots of songs related to the primary emotion of the episode. Along the way, the ‘Ahlan Simsim’ friends manage to have a fun-filled play date while also learning new skills that will help them build resilience and thrive into the future.”

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A show that came together remotely

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Launched last year, ’Ahlan Simsim’ is an offshoot of ‘Iftah Ya Simsim’, which is the Arabic version of the popular children’s cartoon ‘Sesame Street’.

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“Children across the Middle East have been laughing and learning alongside ‘Sesame’ characters for over 40 years. ‘Iftah Ya Simsim’ premiered in the region in 1979, followed by Egyptian, Jordanian, and Palestinian local versions. And for over 50 years, across 150 countries and generations of children, Sesame Workshop has created culturally relevant education content tailored to children’s specific needs,” says Bardanashvili.

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The development team behind the second season of ‘Ahlan Simsim’ worked “fully remotely”. Their mission was to take into account children’s needs during a global crisis — particularly refugee children.

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“As the COVID-19 pandemic started to unfold, we knew it’s those who are already the most vulnerable who are most at risk. That’s especially true for young children, whose needs are too often overlooked in times of crisis,” says Hamda.

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“With so many children out of school and without access to in-person learning spaces, there was an urgent need for innovative approaches to ensuring that young children still have access to early education.”

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Hamda describes writing for ‘Ahlan Simsim’ as an uplifting and joyful task, one that she doesn’t take it lightly.

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“Writing for children is a much bigger responsibility, especially if we are talking about content that is also educational,” she says. “It means you have to study every word that is written and go through a much longer and complicated process of revisions and feedback.”

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As for her personal favourite character to write on the show, baby goat Ma’zooza takes the cake.

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“She is adorable, cute and loving. Whenever I want to add more funny moments Ma’zooza comes to the rescue. She is always moving so fast, obsessed with round objects, and she has the cutest outfits,” she says.

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More than a series: A humanitarian effort

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‘Ahlan Simsim’ is more than just a children’s show, but part of an ambitious humanitarian effort.

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“The ‘Ahlan Simsim’ show is part of a broader Sesame Workshop humanitarian program in partnership with the International Rescue Committee (IRC). When our partnership won the MacArthur Foundation’s landmark ‘100&Change’ award in 2017, we set out to implement the largest early childhood intervention in the history of humanitarian response, a life-changing intervention for millions of children and caregivers in the Syrian response region,” she explains.

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“As with all ‘Sesame’ programmes around the world, we consulted with local experts in early childhood development (ECD), media, art and play-therapy, and language and did extensive formative research on what children in the region need the most — and the result is ‘Ahlan Simsim’!”

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‘Ahlan Simsim’s’ first season in 2019 focused on “socio-emotional learning — what we call the ‘emotional ABCs,’ demonstrating practical emotional self-regulation techniques, and highlighting the rich and diverse culture of the Middle East,” continues Bardanashvili.

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“We created a warm and welcoming neighbourhood with a diverse cast of Muppets, humans, and animated characters, each with unique characteristics and backgrounds. Along with the familiar Muppet friends Elmo, Kaki, and Gargur, we created two brand-new lead Muppet characters for ‘Ahlan Simsim’. Basma and Jad, and their sidekick friend, an adorable baby goat named Ma’zooza. The season also featured children and celebrities throughout the region.”

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“The most challenging part of creating a show like Ahlan Simsim is to present critical educational lessons for three- to eight-year-old children in an entertaining, engaging, and impactful way,” continues Bardanashvili.

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“This year, this challenge was made even more interesting, as we developed and produced season two during the new realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, producing the season remotely from our homes. The fact that educational television like ‘Ahlan Simsim’ is one of the best ways to reach children during times like these was a huge motivation to our creative team.”

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Season two of ‘Ahlan Simsim’ is now available on YouTube. Season three, “full of new fun and playful formats,” is currently in production.

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What is ‘Ahlan Simsim’?

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A series from the creators of ‘Sesame Street’ shows around the globe, including the Arabic version ‘Iftah Ya Simsim’ (Open Sesame), ‘Ahlan Simsim’ (Welcome Sesame) is a show about two best friends, Basma and Jad, who adventure through the world with the help of their Muppet friends, animated characters, and trusted adults. ‘Ahlan Simsim’ is part of Sesame Workshop, the non-profit educational organisation behind ‘Sesame Street’, which has been on air in America since 1969, with familiar characters such as Elmo, Big Bird, Ernie and Cookie Monster. Ten years later, an Arabic version named ‘Iftah Ya Simsim’ launched in Kuwait, and aired in 22 Arabic-speaking countries. It ran until 1989.

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