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Elmo Joins the Forever War

The Muppets are getting ready to embark on a new mission: venturing to camps holding millions of child refugees from the Syrian civil war.

In Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon, there are some 2 million Syrian children who have fled the horrors of the 6-year-old civil war to live in primitive camps. Aid organizations struggle to ensure they get the basics — food, shelter, and (relative) safety — but little else.

That’s where the team behind Sesame Street saw an opening, said Sherrie Rollins Westin, executive vice president of the show’s nonprofit arm, Sesame Workshop. “If there are major issues that have an impact on children, we look for where we can make a difference,” Westin said, speaking this month on the sidelines of Foreign Policy’s Culture Summit in Abu Dhabi.

Sesame Street teamed up with the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian aid organization, to begin testing programming for children in Syrian refugee camps in Jordan in 2016. If all goes well, they hope to have Sesame Street programming running in the camps within a few years, tailored to children whose lives were upended by conflict.

Bringing furry American Muppets to Syrian refugee camps may sound like the fuzziest kind of soft power. But it could offer a glimmer of hope to children who’ve been robbed of a childhood. And retired military and former government officials say it could have another big side effect: helping starve terrorist groups like the Islamic State of its next generation of fighters. Cookie Monster, Elmo, and friends, that is, could pack as powerful a punch as a drone strike.

“I think it’s a brilliant idea and phenomenally positive,” said David Barno, a retired U.S. Army ranger and former commander of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan. The military alone could never root out terrorism, he told FP, while childhood education is one of the most potent and underappreciated antidotes to extremism.

“If we’re not doing enough in aid, development, childhood education, we’re going to have to keep fighting terrorists,” he said. “Almost all military folks who served out in Afghanistan and Iraq recognize that.”

The Islamic State certainly does. The terrorist group set up its own education programs to groom the next generation of fighters in Iraq and Syria. Through textbooks and phone apps, the Islamic State teaches kids math with AK-47s and grammar with tanks.

“The extremists are preying upon younger and younger children,” said Farah Pandith, who held senior positions in three Republican and Democratic administrations. “It isn’t just 25-, but 8-, 10-, 12-year-olds we need to focus on,” said Pandith, former U.S. special representative to Muslim communities. The United Nations recorded 274 cases of the Islamic State recruiting child soldiers in 2016, using children to fight, execute hostages, and carry out suicide bombings.

Sesame Street offers a real alternative, said Ammar al-Sabban, a…

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