August 07, 2017

Podcast: How $100 Million Can Change the Future for Young Refugees

This is the fifth in a series of Business of Giving interviews with the eight semifinalists in the MacArthur Foundation 100&Change competition.

The scope of today’s refugee crisis is unprecedented. Around the world, 65 million people have been displaced from their homes, half of them children. On average, a refugee remains a refugee for 17 years.

In this special edition of the Business of Giving, Sherrie Westin, executive vice president for global impact and philanthropy for Sesame Workshop, and Sarah Smith, senior director of education at the International Rescue Committee, discuss their joint effort to educate children displaced by conflict.

Their collaboration will focus on children in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. The programs are tailored to the children and their backgrounds.

"What we always do is look to create something that’s truly local," says Ms. Westin, "that’s reflective of those children’s reality, that is in their language, in their culture."

The organizations also hope to add to the body of knowledge about how to help refugee children.

"There is not a lot of proven evidence on what’s most effective for children in crisis," she says. "And for us to be able to add to that body of evidence so that other players — whether it’s in the Syrian area or Africa or beyond ­— can benefit from our learning, that’s one of the hopes, that the model that we can create can be replicated elsewhere."

Listen to the full interview on the player below or scroll down to read a transcript provided by the Business of Giving.

Denver: And this evening’s semi-finalist of the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change initiative is Sesame Workshop, teamed together with the International Rescue Committee to educate children displaced by conflict and persecution. And here to discuss their proposal with us is Sherrie Westin, Executive Vice President of Global Impact and Philanthropy for Sesame Workshop, and Sarah Smith, the Senior Director of Education at the International Rescue Committee. My thanks to both of you for being here this evening!

Sarah: Thank you!

Sherrie: Thanks!

Denver: Let me start with you, Sarah. Give us an idea of the scope of the refugee crisis and that of displaced persons at it stands today.  And how many of those are children?

Sarah: Thank you. The scope of the refugee crisis today is unprecedented. There are 65 million people displaced around the world; half of those are children. Under 8, there are about 12 million. So it’s a massive, massive scale.

Denver: And if you would for a moment, what’s the difference—because we hear it used so much interchangeably—between a refugee, a migrant, a displaced person? What’s the distinction among them?

Sarah: The most important difference is that a refugee is somebody who has had to flee their country. So they’ve crossed an international border, and they have done so because they’re in fear of persecution, and they’re fleeing for their lives. A displaced person is somebody who has also had to flee their home, but they have not crossed an international border. So they have stayed within their country, but they’ve also had to flee because they are in fear for their lives.

Denver: And whether you’re a displaced person or a refugee, how long on average do you remain displaced?

Sarah: It’s quite shocking and I think this is one of the most unbelievable statistics. On average, a refugee stays a refugee for 17 years, and somebody who’s been displaced in their country… for 25 years. So this is a long-term problem.

Denver: So this is not a short-term solution; this is their life. This is their way of life for a quarter of a century, in some cases.

Sarah: Exactly.

Denver: Sherrie, what is the impact of violence and neglect and these unimaginable hardships on children and their ultimate development?

Sherrie: Well, Denver, there’s been so much research and evidence in the last few years on how detrimental those adverse childhood experiences – what is often referred to as “toxic stress” – is on a child’s development, with long-term repercussions to their health, not just to their cognitive ability, but to their health, to their livelihood. So we know that if we reach children in those critical early years, that we can make a huge difference on children’s outcomes, particularly for children who have been subject to violence or trauma because they need the help to mitigate the damage from that experience. So when you think of refugee children, obviously, these are children who have had extreme experiences that can really alter their long-term opportunities. And this is an area we know we can make a difference.

Denver: Sherrie, if you look at the totality of this worldwide humanitarian system, what kind of emphasis is placed on early childhood development, emotional well-being, and education?


Sherrie: Well, look. There are incredible actors in the humanitarian space that do amazing work – International Rescue Committee at the top of that list. But understandably, it’s focused first on safety and on rescuing, on providing that shelter that is needed, and the basics – nutrition, health. That is understandable, but that’s always been because you’re responding to a crisis.

As Sarah said, when you now look at, in the refugee space, how long families and children are displaced, when you’re talking about not a short-term response but a very long-term situation– it’s understandable why the efforts have been where they were– but we really need to be focusing on education if we’re going to give these children an opportunity. And that’s only about 2% of all of the resources in the humanitarian space is focused on education. Again, you can understand why it’s gone where it has, but we need to shift how we’re responding to these crises as these crises have changed in terms of their longevity.

Denver: Absolutely. It’s time for a new way of thinking, no question. Speaking about the International Rescue Committee being at the very top of the list, how did this partnership between Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee come about?  And what do you do to nurture and grow and develop that relationship?

Sherrie: You have to understand that Sesame Workshop—you’re familiar with our work—but we always look at the world through the lens of a child. We look at issues: How can we help children tackle difficult issues… whether that’s HIV/AIDS in South Africa or girls’ education in Afghanistan, autism here at home? That’s something we do. So when we saw the staggering number of children displaced, we felt we had to do something.

We work with a lot of wonderful organizations in the space and will continue to do so, but we were very thoughtful about looking at each one of those organizations, looking at their capacity, their expertise, their skills, and comparing that with ours, which led us to the IRC. Because when you look at their experience on the ground, their infrastructure, their knowledge of refugees, and then you combine that with our approach to reaching children in those early years– our proven educational content– we felt like this was the right organization to partner with. That led to a partnership long before the MacArthur Prize was even in existence, but we did feel like it was a marriage of strengths, that we complemented one another, and we formed a partnership that we announced about a year ago at the World Humanitarian Summit to just say: “This is something where we feel we can make a difference, and we were going to focus on the Syrian response region.

Denver: Well, you do make a remarkable team. So, with regard to that proposal to the MacArthur Foundation, Sarah, what countries are you going to be focusing on? What ages of children would this effort be directed toward?

Sarah: Our program will reach children inside Syria and also in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. We’ll be reaching refugee children and also vulnerable children in communities where refugees are living inside Jordan and Lebanon and Iraq. We’re focused on children who are under 8 years old.  The youngest, as Sherrie said, are the ones that need immediate investment.

Denver: The idea of a refugee camp, I think, is pretty abstract and amorphous to many, many Americans. I know you recently returned from one of those facilities in Jordan. Describe to us  what’s it like on a day-to-day basis, and particularly for children who are there.

Sarah: I think one of the hardest things to imagine as a parent is living in a place that’s not your home and knowing that you have very few resources and opportunities to take care of your children. Day in, day out, that’s what it is like for these families and these children. One of the most commonly misunderstood facts about this crisis and the refugees living throughout the region is that most of them are not living in camps, in a traditional camp setting. Many of them are living in tented settlements and in shelters that are temporary, but they’re scattered throughout these countries. Many are also living in vacant buildings. I was in Iraq last year, and it’s astonishing how many families have taken up homes in buildings that were half constructed because they’re places where they could find shelter.

So the conditions are extremely difficult. Parents often have to either work long hours, leaving their children home by themselves, or with other children to take care of them; or they’re searching for work, really struggling day by day to put food on the table and to take care of their kids. These kids don’t often have access to education. Very, very few have access to preschools. So day in, day out, they’re often home by themselves, either in one of these settlements or in a temporary place where they’re living.

Denver: Oh, wow! Sherrie, you plan to provide a suite of programming and multimedia content. What are some of the things you’re imagining and looking at and developing currently?

Sherrie: We’ve had a long history of creating local, indigenous programming in the Middle East. In Jordan, Hikayat Simsim. In Egypt, Alam Simsim. We currently have a broadcast out of the gulf, it’s Iftah Ya Simsim. So what we always do is look to create something that’s truly local, that’s reflective of those children’s reality that is in their language, in their culture. We believe children respond to seeing themselves, to being able to identify.

So one of the things we’ll do is we will look to create an entirely new program, if you will, that would reflect their reality with new Muppets that are indigenous. People think of Sesame Street as television. That will certainly be a component. We can reach so many children and their families in host communities through broadcast, through mobile. It’s no longer just television when we’re reaching children and families. So that will be a component, but that will not be the only aspect. Because we have enormous opportunity to create content that is engaging, that appeals to both the adult as well as the child, that is also used by the IRC and others in that space with much more direct interventions– whether that’s on  a cell phone, whether it’s for a classroom, whether it’s through text messages. There are so many ways we can use our engaging content to reach those children and their parents, which is so important to reach the caregivers as well.

Denver: You have a rich history in this part of the world and are going in quite familiar with…

Sherrie: We do. And it’s amazing travelling around the world…these characters have this ability to engage children in every place on earth. And even in those camps, when you think… when we bring in our characters, and you see Elmo, and these children light up, and the thought that you’re going to reach them with quality, proven educational content!  But at the same time, we bring a joy and a hope, and that’s really important in these settings.

Denver: Yes.  A little bit of happiness. I recall from your last appearance on the show how Sesame Workshop is dedicated and committed to formative research and testing. What are you doing in that regard in connection with this exceptional undertaking?

Sherrie: I have to say it’s another reason that we chose to work with the IRC on this initiative because they have the same sort of importance. They have the same emphasis on quality, research, evaluation, measurement, and we want that to be one of the deliverables. In other words, we will test what we’re doing. We do formative research to make sure that it’s going to resonate, that it’s going to appeal, that we have the right distribution platforms. We also test everything we do: Are we achieving the outcomes we set out to achieve with children? With their caregivers? And we want to share that. We want to share that with everyone. There is not a lot of proven evidence on what’s most effective for children in crisis. And for us to be able to add to that body of evidence so that other players– whether it’s in the Syrian area or Africa or beyond– can benefit from our learning…that’s one of the hopes, that the model that we can create can be replicated elsewhere.

Denver: One of the things you’re doing is you have a pilot going on, correct? A 15-month pilot. Why don’t you guys speak to that.

Sherrie: We do. Well, we were very fortunate. When we announced our partnership a year ago, we were able to secure funding from the Bernard Van Leer Foundation and Open Society Foundations. Through generous support from both, we have begun a pilot phase where we start our testing; we bring together advisors – we’ve had that both in New York and in the region. And that allows us to create new content, test some content that we have now to see what resonates. It’s terrific. I actually think that that most likely was a factor in MacArthur selecting us because we had secured funding initially. We were in the process of testing and learning, and I’m sure that was a big help in this process.

Denver: It’s difficult, Sarah, for me to imagine how you would go about distributing this content…so it ultimately reaches those 12 million children that you mentioned between 0 and 8 – that audience that you’re targeting.  How do you plan on going about that?

Sarah: Yes, indeed it is. It’s challenging, but for us, I think quite straightforward in many ways. We operate in every sector in the humanitarian system. So what that means is we have programs in health, in child protection, in education. We deliver cash to families. And because we work in all of those sectors and throughout the humanitarian system, we see that as our distribution platform. We touch families in every aspect of their life.

So this program will deliver this educational content and these proven educational resources through this vast network of service providers, whether it’s a community health worker who’s going into a home to help a mother who’s just had a baby; or whether it’s a volunteer preschool teacher who is teaching a preschool class in a community center; or a child protection officer, or a women’s protection officer who holds group sessions with mothers and children. We’ll provide for them the content they need to deliver those services, and we’ll also push those resources into homes through this vast network of service providers.  

I should say we also have excellent relationships with ministries, with ministries of education and health. We’ve heard from them that they are doing an amazing job of reaching refugees who’ve entered their countries, but don’t have the resources they need to deliver services as well as they’d like. So for them, this is equally exciting to be able to have new content that they can trust and rely on and that can fit easily into their system.

Denver: Great! Let’s turn to the 100&Change initiative for a moment, if we could, Sarah. If your proposal – this proposal – is selected as the winning submission, come December, and you should be awarded that $100 million, how would you go about using those funds?

Sarah: First, we would be able to deliver immediately. So if we are so lucky as to be selected, I think one of the most important things to remember is we are in the midst of a crisis, and we want to get educational resources to children and their parents immediately. Because we have this infrastructure, and because we have such excellent proven content and Sesame’s experience in the region, we have resources we can draw on immediately. So we’ll begin to deploy that content and bring these resources to children and their families starting right from the beginning.

I think what Sherrie mentioned about how we will, over the course of the five-year project, not only bring these educational resources to children, we’ll also demonstrate for the humanitarian system how this can be done. In addition to education being under-resourced in these contexts, the humanitarian system has been set up in a very fragmented way by sectors. So you have a health sector; you have a protection sector; you have an education sector, and they very rarely operate together. What we’ll show the system is how you can provide a coherent package of resources that can be deployed across those sectors and delivered within that system… so that in future crises, other actors can use this kind of model, and it will transform the entire humanitarian system.

Denver: A template. Let me close with this for both of you. I’ll start with Sherrie. There are seven other bold and exceptionally well-thought-out proposals amongst the other semi-finalists, all addressing an urgent social problem. What would be the case that you would make as to why this submission by Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee will have the greatest meaningful and long-lasting impact on global society?

Sherrie: Well, first of all, I want to say that those other seven are incredible programs, and we really wish they would award eight winners. But I do believe the issue we are addressing is the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time.  And looking at that through the lens of a child, to me, is something that we know we can make a difference in the long-term outcome if we’re reaching children early. Without that, there’s an entire generation at risk, and that has repercussions not just to their future, but to a more peaceful, stable world for all children.

We also know that if you can reach children early, you can have an impact…a proven impact of giving them the tools they need to overcome these significant challenges and to have the greatest chance to not only survive, but thrive. If we can change the system– not just for the children that we will be reaching through this program– but so that there’s a model—I’m sad to say it. I don’t think that we’re going to cure the refugee crisis. There will be future crises and more displaced children and families in the future. But what we are proposing is something that could make a difference for all of those future crises. I believe that it has a benefit to all of society.

Denver: That would be the long-lasting part. What would you add to that, Sarah?

Sarah: Just to say that this is something, too, that—bringing it back to children and parents. Parents that we met with in Jordan just a couple of weeks ago, these mothers are desperate for help and support. And I think any parent knows that if you can’t support and help your child, you do feel completely hopeless. They’re asking us, and it’s really on us to decide if we’re going to answer them and deliver something for them, or turn our backs on them.

Denver: Well, Sherrie Westin, the Executive Vice President of Global Impact and Philanthropy for Sesame Workshop, and Sarah Smith, the Senior Director of Education at the International Rescue Committee, I want to thank you both so much for being here this evening and for such an interesting discussion. Sherrie, if people are interested in learning more about this initiative, where can they go to find that information?

Sherrie: They can go to, and they will see all about the partnership between the International Rescue Committee and Sesame Workshop and our work in this region.

Denver: Great! Well, my best wishes to the both of you and your colleagues in the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change initiative. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.

Sarah: Thank you so much for having us!

Sherrie: Thanks for having us.