Cuddly characters with messages of trust and respect are to be beamed into the homes of Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian children as a specially adapted series of Sesame Street episodes begins across the Middle East.
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There’s a new team of peacekeepers heading to the Middle East. In an attempt to succeed where the likes of George W., Tony and Koffi have so far failed, Tonton, Jiddo and a host of friends are heading into the pressure cooker atmosphere to promote dialogue between the warring parties.
But these are not international diplomats. They're Muppets. And their mission is to bring messages of hope, respect and understanding to the region's children through specially written episodes of the popular kids television program "Sesame Street."
EU funding aids project
Elmo and friends will promote peace in the Middle East.
With the financial support of the European Union, the non-profit Ford Foundation and a host of other contributors, the Sesame Workshop -- the educational organization behind "Sesame Street" -- is working with Palestinian, Israeli, and Jordanian producers to make 78 episodes of "Sesame Stories" for children aged four to seven.
Writers from the Sesame Workshop have collaborated closely with child psychologists and educational advisors in making the programs, which will be broadcast by Israel's HOP! TV, Jordanian JRTV, and the Palestinian Ma'an Network. The shows have been showing in Israel since September, and will begin in the Palestinian territories and Jordan on October 26.
The workshop’s president, Gary Knell, told reporters: "We are striving to counter the negative images the children see on television every day and to offer hope for a better world. Sesame Stories convey realistic and positive messages and provide a valuable tool to children in developing new perspectives about themselves and those around them."
Cooperation and respect
About €2.5 million of the programs' estimated €7 million in production costs are coming from the EU External Relations Department as part of its Partnership for Peace Program. The shows will feature Israeli and Arab Muppets who, together, will try to get across a message of cooperation and respect for others. The shows, which will go by their own names in Arabian and Hebrew, will contain individual scenarios between mixed-race friends based on themes such as acceptance, empathy and appreciating similarities and differences.
Elmo and friends will bring a message of peace to the Middle East.
The American storylines of "Sesame Street" has been shown in the Middle East for 25 years, but the new "Sesame" stories are the first to feature local situations.
Arabs and Jews as friends
In one of the "Sumsum" episodes already shown on Israeli television, Israeli and Arab friends band together to stage a peaceful protest when one of the Muppets bangs his drums too loudly. In another, a Jewish girl and her Arab friend compare hair colors: “Look, my hair is a bit darker than yours!”
Israeli director Alona Alt is convinced that the scenes of integration and friendship will have lasting effects on children from both Israel and the Palestinian territories. "We concentrate on three objectives: respect and understanding, a peaceful solution to the conflict and the representation of both Arab and Israeli children," she said.
"We offer the possibility for the development of pride in one’s own culture and that Jewish children can learn that, although at the moment the two cannot meet, it might not be far away."
Working towards a brighter future
In an episode of "Simsim," created for the Palestinian Ma’an Network, children are shown struggling to reach a high shelf or trying to ride a bike to a chorus of "keep trying, you will get there."
Violence is a way of life for Palestinian children.
Dahed Kadev, a producer at Ma’an, said, "We hope that with this series -- and hopefully many more in the future -- we can sow the seeds of hope in our children. Instead of the images of violence our children see every day, they can see positive pictures and be convinced that they and their nation can achieve a better future."
Haled Haded, from Jordanian broadcaster JRTV added: "It teaches the children the ABC of life through hope, respect and understanding. Sesame Stories will fill a real gap in Jordanian television."
Ignorance causes conflict
The European Commission has praised the work of the Sesame Workshop and the Middle Eastern broadcasters saying that the shows they have put together will be a positive step in overcoming prejudices. "In times of heightened fear, conflict and violence, this project offers children in the region a different experience and one they can share across borders," the Commission said.
The statement added that the Commission decided to fund episodes of the series "in the belief that ignorance of others fuels the ongoing conflict in the region."
Michael Leigh, a senior Commission official, echoed that sentiment when he said: "Working with children today will help build peace tomorrow."
"The Sesame Stories project is an inspiring initiative which should help build understanding and mutual respect, and the Commission’s support testifies to our long-term commitment to peaceful co-existence and tolerance in the Middle East," he told reporters.
The European Union is the biggest donor of humanitarian support to the Palestinian territories, with money mainly going towards building infrastructure and bolstering democratic institutions.