Ameera is the newest muppet on the Arabic children’s show Ahlan Simsim. She is witty, loves science, has a ponytail and uses a bright purple wheelchair or crutches to get around due to a spinal cord injury.
The character made her debut during the show's fifth season, which began in time for Ramadan.
It took Ahlan Simsim’s creators two years to develop Ameera. The team behind Iftah Ya Simsim and Sesame Street worked with the guidance of inclusion and disability advisers, who helped ensure that her movements and appearance were representational of her disability.
“Ameera was created to deepen representation of children with disabilities in children’s media,” says Estee Bardanashvili, senior director and supervising producer of Ahlam Simsim.
“We wanted to introduce a new character who has a visible disability and uses mobility equipment to represent the experiences of so many children and families in the region and around the world.”
With her bubbly personality and large friendly eyes, Ameera was designed for all children to be able to relate to, and to defy stereotypes that many hold about people with disabilities.
“Ameera is a smart, confident, kind and witty eight-year-old kid that all children can see themselves with,” Bardanashvili says. “She represents all the girls out there who love science and sports and may not see themselves represented on screens.”
Ameera doesn’t have a specific backstory to her spinal cord injury. Bardanashvili says the team intentionally decided against having one so that she’d be relatable to children regardless of their experiences.
In line with Ahlan Simsim’s aim to support children’s social-emotional development, season five highlights the importance of kindness towards ourselves and others.
“During our curriculum advisory process, experts stressed that while a lot of emphasis is often placed on kindness towards others, children’s appreciation of self, which plays an important role in social-emotional learning and children’s cognitive development, is rarely highlighted in the region,” Bardanashvili says.
“Our team wanted to emphasise that being kind to oneself is as important as being kind to others.”
Ameera is an embodiment of this season’s message.
She is older than some of the other muppets on the show, including Basma and Jad, whom she is often seen helping to understand new concepts and sharing experiences.
“[She has] the patience and confidence of an older sibling,” Bardanashvili says.
“Each character has a purpose and an important role to play in teaching children the crucial social-emotional and academic skills that create a strong foundation for lifelong learning and success in school and beyond. Characters should be relatable and representational, but beyond that, they should be engaging, funny and exciting in order to capture children’s attention and imagination.”
Ameera won’t only be appearing in muppet form. She will also star in animations that have been developed to quickly respond to pressing early education needs of children affected by crisis and conflict.
The Ahlam Simsim series is part of a broader humanitarian initiative by the same name. The initiative comes as a partnership between Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee.
It is made of a combination of mass media, direct services, as well as research and advocacy, which Bardanashvili says is “core to Sesame Workshop’s approach in crisis settings”.
Through the show and direct services in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, the Ahlam Simsim team is reaching families affected by conflict and displacement, whether in person in homes, community centres and children’s spaces, or through online educational resources and early childhood development services.
“Ahlan Simsim was created because we identified a critical gap in the global humanitarian response: only 2 per cent of global humanitarian funding supports education, and an even smaller fraction of that benefits young children affected by crisis and displacement,” Bardanashvili says. “The initiative was developed with flexible, scalable models designed to change how national and humanitarian actors respond to crises in the region and around the world.”
The senior director of Ahlam Simsim says the initiative continues to grow despite challenges brought on by the pandemic.
“We’ve reached over 760,000 children and caregivers in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria with direct services with our partners at the International Rescue Committee,” Bardanashvili says. “In just two years on air, the Ahlan Simsim show has reached over 17 million children across the Middle East and North Africa via broadcast.”
Ahlan Simsim is on from Sunday-Thursday at 2.30pm on MBC 3. Full episodes are also available on the ‘Ahlan Simsim’ YouTube channel. For videos, storybooks and educational materials, visit www.ahlansimsim.org