Early Childhood Development in Syrian Refugee Communities: Hope for a Future of Peace and Stability

Trying to solve some of the world’s most challenging problems is by all means no cake walk. It requires patience, humility, creativity, and hope. The Syrian conflict has displaced millions of people; many have lost everything: loved ones, their homes, and their livelihoods. Countless families are trying to rebuild a life and provide a future for their children. However, many depend on humanitarian assistance as their ability to find gainful employment is severely restricted. School systems in host countries are struggling to absorb the large influx of children. In some cases, refugee children do not speak the primary language of instruction (e.g., Lebanon), and often have been out of school for long periods of time and have thus fallen behind academically.

We know the effects severe adversity and stress can have on a young child’s brain development. Early life stress and trauma can have life-long implications for healthy development and learning. And we also know that nurturing care, in other words, responsive, sensitive, and stimulating interactions with a caring adult during the earliest years, and high quality early learning opportunities can buffer against some of this adversity. And yet, only 2% of humanitarian aid goes to education, and only a fraction of that to early childhood development and education programs.

The future for many refugee families in the Middle East is uncertain. It is probably hard for anyone to really understand what they must be going through absent of having experienced war and displacement themselves. The persistence these families are exhibiting despite their futures being so uncertain is astounding to say the least. Every day they are demonstrating strength and dignity, patience, and creativity: strength and dignity in surviving what few of us can even begin to imagine; patience taking one day at a time despite the uncertainty of tomorrow; and creativity in rebuilding and maintaining their livelihoods, communities, and families. The least “we”, the providers of relief and aid, can do is meet them with just as much patience and creativity, and a whole load of humility.

In 2015 some bold minds at Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) joined forces and began to work on developing programming for young children and their families affected by the Syrian conflict in the Middle East. Early in 2017 they were shortlisted for the MacArthur “100&Change competition. The first half of 2017 was spent developing the program, and discussing details around IRC services and new broadcast content tailored to the specifics of the Syrian refugee context named Sesame Seeds. With little to no prior evidence for early childhood development (ECD) programming in emergencies, this endeavor required bold ideas, and immense creativity in planning to realize these bold ideas. I’m happy to report that these efforts did not go unnoticed; Sesame Seeds is now one of four finalists!

A design workshop held in Amman, Jordan in May 2017 provided a glimpse into not just the enthusiasm shared by the instigators of this initiative, but the immense dedication of the IRC country program teams. There were heated discussions about priorities, budgets, and the feasibility of what was being proposed. Yet there was no shred of doubt about the importance of ECD in Emergencies, and the fuel that kept everyone focused on the end goal, was hope: hope that we can make a difference in these families’ lives.

Hope can provide the fertilizer for the relentless persistence in “doing good”. Hope, or should I say “doing good” may not however become the end in itself. Or as a saying in German goes, “das Gegenteil von gut is nicht böse, sondern gut gemeint”. Good intensions do not justify our actions; we need to ensure that our actions positively impact the people we’re trying to support. To do so, we need to incorporate the evidence that exists, and ensure that new evidence informs our actions every step of the way. I would like to argue that the humility in international development and humanitarian aid lies, in part, in doing sound research. The IRC and Sesame Workshop share an impressive dedication to be evidence based, evident in their track record of incorporating evidence into program design and conducting thorough research on their activities. The MacArthur Foundation requires a rigorous research component to ensure learning in the “100&Change” initiative and earmarks a sizable budget to go toward monitoring, evaluation, and learning. But to make the research happen, full cooperation and support of the country program teams, whose primary concern is to the people they serve, is essential. Rigorous impact evaluations of programs are not always well received by program teams as it often means withholding some of the services (assigning them to a control group), at least temporarily, and because it is resource intensive and often a drain on program staff’s time and energy. Sesame Workshop and the IRC invited us, Global TIES for Children at New York University, to serve as the external evaluator on this project. The experience as co-Investigator, under the leadership of Hirokazu Yoshikawa (PI) and Larry Aber (co-I), has been inspiring to say the least. I consistently find myself surrounded by seemingly tireless people, including IRC program teams, willing and able to keep going until there is a solution or agreement.

Humility also lies in taking a step back, and questioning ourselves, looking at our own biases. For example, do we really know what’s best for Syrian refugee families from standpoints of culture, language, values, and beliefs? Are we listening carefully, giving them the respect and dignity of voicing their needs, hopes, and desires? We worked hard to build mechanisms into our research designs that capture family and community perceptions. Using both quantitative and qualitative research methods we aim to combine rigorous impact evaluations with evidence on processes of implementation that reflect parent and community views and experiences.

A further aspect of humility is the recognition that we can’t fix everything. We are no super heroes or magicians. The only thing we can do is work as hard as we can to meet the needs of these families, be patient and persistent, and never forget who the real heroes are: the families and children who have survived the unthinkable, and who are not giving up on a future of peace and stability.

Targeting four countries (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq) a new Sesame Seeds program, which will become available through popular media (broadcast and digital), will be integrated with a variety of services (home visiting, preschools, health centers) provided by the IRC and other service providers. The IRC and Sesame Workshop have carved out an ambitious project. With a strong vision for scale, especially through the broadcast and other multimedia channels, this project yields the potential to bring early learning opportunities to millions of children throughout the Middle East. I’m excited to be part of the research team to ensure we find the most cost-effective approaches to make this a reality.

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