Addressing the urgent needs of young children and caregivers in Syria and the Middle East

A reflection on needs, solutions, barriers and opportunities for early childhood support in Syria with lessons drawn from the Ahlan Simsim experience.

June 01, 2023 by Elana Banin, International Rescue Committee , and Heidi Rosbe, Ahlan Simsim, International Rescue Committee
5 minutes read
7-year-old boy with his father outside their family’s tent in a camp for internally displaced in northern Syria. Credit: Mohammad Awad/IRC
7-year-old boy with his father outside their family’s tent in a camp for internally displaced in northern Syria.
Credit: Mohammad Awad/IRC

All children deserve to be supported in their early years with the nurturing care and early learning that is vital for setting them up to grow and thrive. This support is particularly important for the more than 6 million children across Syria who are in need of humanitarian assistance.

The February 2023 earthquake that devastated much of southern Türkiye and northwestern Syria has further exacerbated the already urgent needs faced by Syrian families.

Prior to the earthquake, following more than 12 years of war, 15.3 million people in Syria were already in need of humanitarian assistance, and Syria was host to the highest number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world: estimated at 6.8 million, of which children accounted for almost half. These children have never known a world outside of conflict and displacement.

Today, agencies on the ground continue to witness the lasting effects of trauma for Syrian children, including continued acute fear and trouble sleeping amidst scarce country-level availability of mental health and psychosocial support.

This comes on the back of years of compounding emergencies for Syria as well as investment cycles driven by crises rather than solutions that uplift individuals and communities.

Sustainable approaches for response and recovery require a long-term investment mindset.

Supporting children to learn, grow and thrive through Ahlan Simsim

Since 2018, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Sesame Workshop have supported children affected by conflict and crisis in the Middle East with the early childhood support they need to learn, grow and thrive through Ahlan Simsim, or “Welcome Sesame” in Arabic.

The initiative has reached more than 1 million children through direct services for families in the Middle East, and 23 million more through the award-winning locally produced TV show – also called Ahlan Simsim – an Arabic-language version of Sesame Street.

With 60 partnerships across the region and 21 in Syria alone, IRC has provided through Ahlan Simsim both emergency response and long-term services to support children and their families, engaging local partners to coordinate efforts and share capacities and expertise.

Ahlan Simsim employs the power of play as a vehicle for learning and development as well as mental health and psychosocial support. The program also engages the wider community of adults important in children’s lives including caregivers, local communities, teachers and health providers.

Ahlan Simsim is effective in reaching the most vulnerable children by deploying a range of programs that include flexible modular designs adapted for both in-person and remote delivery, with educational media embedded within program curricula. As such, the portfolio of early childhood development (ECD) support meets children and families where they are, with programs that stand alone or integrate into other existing services, and adjusts for nimble delivery when a new crisis hits.

Example interventions in acute settings include delivery of early childhood interventions through temporary shelters, mobile caravans and remote delivery to caregivers. In areas characterized by more stability, programs boost children’s school readiness to ease the transition into grade 1, as well as the integration of ECD information into health system wellness visits.

A father in an IDP camp in Syria caring for his son who was born with brain atrophy. Credit: Mohammad Awad/IRC
A father in an IDP camp in Syria caring for his son who was born with brain atrophy.
Mohammad Awad/IRC

Recent impact research released May 16th, 2023 provides proof of concept. One study by international research center New York University Global TIES for Children found substantial impact of the Ahlan Simsim remote preschool program delivered in Lebanon to Syrian refugee families on child literacy, numeracy and social-emotional skills.

With effects comparable to what we see across global studies of full-year in-person preschool programs, this 11-week program successfully engaged parents to provide learning activities at home with educational media components integrated across program delivery. Importantly, child learning outcomes did not vary based on the caregiver’s education or literacy levels.

These findings demonstrate the significant potential of remote programs to both engage caregivers living in crisis contexts to support their children’s development and early learning at home, and to increase global education equity when delivered with carefully applied program design.

Using similar program modalities in Syria, the IRC has reached over half a million children and caregivers across the northeast and northwest of the country. Evidence of impact from the remote preschool program trialed in a neighboring crisis context presents tremendous opportunities to reach even more children in Syria, and beyond.

IRC’s experience in these contexts has demonstrated significant demand for a range of programming including caregiver support, early education and school readiness.

The way ahead

Ahlan Simsim demonstrates what long-term innovative solutions for both acute and prolonged humanitarian challenges look like in practice. Findings from our remote programming in Lebanon have significant implications for crisis and conflict affected contexts where there are limited to no preschool options, or where going to in-person school is often unsafe.

Syria is a prime example of where similar programs could have a lifetime effect on children and their caregivers. Expanding and scaling this model requires prioritization and investment, paired with other flexible contextually-designed programs.

As the global development and humanitarian communities continue to respond to the needs of the Syrian population, we must ensure that children and their caregivers remain at the forefront, and that support is committed to Syria with predictable and appropriate funding that enables strategic sustainable impact.

Community demand for immediate needs alongside long-term solutions can be met by drawing upon lessons from Ahlan Simsim, further enabled by embedding caregiver wellbeing and holistic child development in planning, policies and financing to ensure high quality programs can be implemented at scale.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) helps people affected by humanitarian crises—including the climate crisis—to survive, recover and rebuild their lives. The IRC works in over 40 crisis-affected countries and communities throughout Europe and the Americas.

Sesame Workshop is the nonprofit organization behind Sesame Street with a mission to help children everywhere grow smarter, stronger and kinder. Sesame Workshop delivers high-quality early childhood programming in more than 150 countries.


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