Sesame Street Creates New Muppets for Refugee Children: Why We Must Amplify the Voices of the Rohingya

Having viewers in more than 150 countries, the show’s newest additions will portray Aziz and Noor, six-year-old Rohingya Muslim twins, as a way for the show to raise awareness of social issues and to represent Rohingya children worldwide

Imagine yourself as a child, running around with your best pals, when you suddenly realize that you’re late for dinner so you run back. Except, you're actually in a refugee camp and your dinner is taking place at your makeshift home - if one could even call it that. It proves challenging to imagine such a scene. However, most Rohingya children can, because this is their reality. With an estimate of around 800,000 Rohingya refugees, 80% being women and children, Rohingya Muslims had no other choice than to flee Myanmar after being persecuted by authorities in a military offensive described by the United Nations as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. 

For starters, the Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority that at one point accounted for a third of the population of Myanmar, also recognized as Burma. Concentrated in the Rakhine state, they have their own language and culture, deferring from Myanmar’s dominant Buddhist groups. However, Myanmar’s government refuses to recognize them and instead sees them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though they have been in the region for generations. 

Following decades of exclusionary citizenship laws and institutionalized discrimination supported and fueled by authorities, Myanmar forces launched a crackdown in 2017 prosecuting the Rohingya, going as far as killing them, burning their villages, and terrorizing them. Consequently, entire communities fled for their lives to Bangladesh. With most Rohingya refugees currently residing in a Bangladesh district called Cox’s Bazar, an overwhelming number of children have been confined to camps. Accounting for more than half of the refugees, many can still recount the suffering they faced before - and after - leaving their villages. 

After gaining media coverage for being known as some of the most marginalized children on earth, Sesame Workshop has found a way to illustrate the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis through their Play to Learn humanitarian program. On December 16th, the Workshop announced the addition of two new muppets to the cast of Sesame Street, their famous early education TV show. Having viewers in more than 150 countries, the show’s newest additions will portray Aziz and Noor, six-year-old Rohingya Muslim twins, as a way for the show to raise awareness of social issues and to represent Rohingya children and their culture worldwide. 

For the first time, Rohingya children will now see characters in the media that truly represent them. But more importantly, they will watch TV and be able to relate to Aziz and Noor, the twin muppets who will not only look like them but also sound like them and share similar experiences with those who find themselves in refugee camps. 

Classified as one the most persecuted communities in the world, the collaboration of Sesame’s Workshop with the International Rescue Committee and BRAC (Bangladesh founded charity) has managed to incorporate the stories of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya children into their two muppets. On one hand, one of the muppets, Moon, although a very confident girl, portrays her fear of loud noises as a representation of trauma - due to gunfire sounds - that many children have. On the other hand, the other muppet, Aziz, will represent the Rohingya tradition of storytelling while doing household chores to help his family. 

Thoroughly thought and constructed, by having the twins be a boy and a girl, the show will be able to have them play together without a gender implication conflict in their traditional Muslim community. True to the show’s intention, and by giving them both the attribute to learn but also the same responsibilities and roles, they are showing little girls that they can have the same roles as men and be considered equals.

Produced as a kid’s TV show, producers are bound to alleviate some of the hardest implications that come with being a refugee. Apart from what the story of the muppets portrays, reality sinks in like a cold bucket of water. Little girls in refugee camps are often taken from school to become wed and lessen their family´s financial struggles. And with little to no hope of returning to Myanmar - considering the burning of their villages back home - and with an uncertain future in Bangladesh, the future of many Rohingya children is sadly uncertain. 

Now facing the additional challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more crucial than ever to amplify the cases of injustice and hardships that the Rohingya are facing. Children in Rohingya refugee settlements have experienced a life of marginalization, depriving them of what could have been a protected childhood. However, with some light at the end of the tunnel, they will now receive and enjoy a representation that has lacked for so long. Even though the show isn’t able to depict the uncensored reality of the Rohingya refugee crisis, it creates a glimmer of hope for the hundreds of thousands of children that are stuck in a never-ending cycle of uncertainty and fear, providing them with educational and emotional resources at a time when it is needed the most. 

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