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Briefing Sheet for Educators in NSW: Supporting Students and Families with Links to Afghanistan during NSW COVID-19 Restrictions

Briefing Sheet For Educators In NSW: Supporting Students And Families With Links To Afghanistan During NSW COVID-19 Restrictions

Fighting between the Taliban and Afghan government forces intensified since May 2021 in response to the gradual withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan. On 15 August 2021, the Taliban captured the capital of Afghanistan, Kabul. Afghanistan is a multiethnic country comprised of Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazara, Uzbeks and several other ethnic minorities. The current crisis in Afghanistan is having a substantial impact on Afghan families regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. 

According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of civilians have been killed and injured by the fighting, including indiscriminate government air strikes, targeted killings and attacks by an Afghan branch of ISIS. According to the UNHCR, nearly 400,000 Afghans have been forced to flee their homes since the beginning of 2021 in response to intensifying hostilities across the nation. 80% of these internally displaced people are women and children and recent escalation of violence has brought the total population of forcibly displaced people in Afghanistan to over 3.5 million. Human Rights Watch has reported that the Taliban has severely restricted women’s rights and freedom of expression. Adding to the humanitarian catastrophe, the COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed Afghanistan’s health care system.  

In NSW many school students (and/or their parents) with ties to Afghanistan are experiencing acute anguish, grief, retraumatisation, flashbacks, anxiety, depression, fear and sleep problems at this time. Almost all Afghans in NSW have family members and friends still residing in Afghanistan with very little hope of being reunited in Australia. Many Afghan families in NSW are desperate for the Australian government to urgently review visa applications for their family members and friends. Most are very fearful that their loved ones will be caught up in the fighting and are deeply worried about targeted killings, kidnappings and forced marriages by Taliban fighters. In addition, Afghans living in Australia on temporary visas are particularly fearful of being deported back to Afghanistan.  

Coupled with these pressures, many young Afghans in NSW are classed as ‘essential workers’ during COVID-19 restrictions working in supermarkets, food outlets and food delivery jobs. This often contributes to young people’s mental load due to fears of exposure to COVID-19 for themselves and their household members at a time where their income is especially important to make up for family members’ lost incomes and the increased need to send money to support family overseas. 

Which students are likely to be affected?  

Students with Afghan heritage 

Australia has a long history of Afghan immigration. However, according to the 2016 census, at least 87% of people who identify as Afghan, arrived in Australia since 1996. This means that many students with Afghan heritage that are at school today, are likely first or second generation Afghan forced migrants. Second-generation students may have spent their whole lives in Australia and may or may not speak Dari, Hazaragi or Pashto. Regardless of their perceived ties to Afghanistan, these students likely have relatives in Afghanistan who they are worried about, they may be witnessing the grief, worry and anger of their parents and family in Australia, and indeed, be personally struggling with sadness, hopelessness, horror and grief for a country and a people they feel a strong bond with.  Some Afghan students may have been born in Pakistan, Iran or Australia.

  • Students may have even more restricted access to devices at this time due to parents seeking regular news updates online and keeping in close contact with family in Afghanistan. 
  • Students may also be directly or indirectly exposed to images, footage and audio of the atrocities occurring in Afghanistan leading to vicarious trauma symptoms including intrusive thoughts, difficulty concentrating and sleep disturbances.  
  • The extremely distressing circumstances in many families may lead to tension and conflict within the home, which adversely impacts on children. 
  • Many Afghan families have recently lost family members in Afghanistan due to COVID-19 and their grief is now being compounded by intense fear, uncertainty and anguish. 
  • The current crisis in Afghanistan is having a substantial impact on Afghan families regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. Most Afghans, are deeply worried about targeted killings, kidnappings and forced marriages by Taliban militants. This fear is more pronounced amongst Hazara Afghans who have experienced decades of persecution at the hands of the Taliban and other extremist militants.  

Students with links to the Hazara community 

Afghanistan’s Hazara community have been specifically targeted for decades by extremist militants for their Shi’a Muslim beliefs and their more liberal views on education, women’s rights and public participation. Members of the Hazara community in Australia are acutely fearful for the safety of their loved ones living in Afghanistan. 

How can I support my students?  

  • For high school students, ensure that at least one staff member with whom the student has rapport, has gotten in touch with the student to ask how they and their loved ones are coping with the situation in Afghanistan combined with the stress of the COVID-19 restrictions in NSW. Arrange to catch up with the student regularly to check in with their wellbeing. For primary school students, ensure that a staff member checks in regularly with a parent/carer to discuss how they and their child are coping. Allow students and parents/carers to control how much they disclose to you. 
  • Ask the student (and/or parent/guardian) what would help them most at this time and make appropriate referrals. You can refer students of any age to STARTTS for individual phone or video counseling (with parent/guardian consent for children under 14) here. STARTTS will also be establishing online groups for students affected by the Afghan crisis. Please get in touch with a STARTTS School Liaison Officer to discuss your school’s circumstances. https://www.startts.org.au/services/schools-program/school-liaison-team/  
  • Provide students with a predictable class routine and prepare them for any changes where possible. Explain the purpose of school work activities. 
  • Discuss options for calming and comfort with students for if they become overwhelmed during online lessons or while trying to complete schoolwork.  
  • It can be helpful to offer some suggestions for wellbeing breaks throughout the day, such as gentle stretching, exercise, a phone call/video call with a friend, taking time to draw or paint, playing a game with a household member, going outside and noticing small, beautiful things, taking five deep, diaphragmatic breaths with slow exhales. 
  • Work with the student to identify at least two school staff members who the student can reach out to throughout the school day if they are struggling. Ensure they have the correct contact details.  
  • Also ensure the student knows how to contact 24/7 counselling services such as Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800), Lifeline (13 11 14) and BeyondBlue (1300 22 4636). Kids Helpline may not be able to add an interpreter to the call, so if the student requires an interpreter, ask them to call TIS National first (131 450), who will then connect the student to the 24/7 counselling service on their behalf with an interpreter. Students should always call 000 directly for emergencies as Emergency Services will add an interpreter to the call if required. 
  • Remove as many additional stressors from the students’ life as possible. For instance, consider offering an alternative time to sit tests and exams, an extension on assignment due dates and flexibility around schoolwork completion. Not only may students be struggling to concentrate and focus on these tasks at this very difficult time, but it is important that students can focus on spending time being comforted by friends and family and talking to loved ones as they try to process what is happening and brace for the tumultuous situation that is unfolding.  
  • Remind the student that education can serve as a refuge from the stressful situation providing routine, purpose, interest and positivity. Remind the student how they can seek help with schoolwork. 
  • Consider the topics that the student is currently studying in their subjects. Some topics in history and geography that reference war, violence, human rights violations and poverty can be particularly triggering. Students won’t be able to learn if they are being emotionally overwhelmed by their personal associations with such themes. Such topics are usually unhelpful to a student who is presently redefining their worldview while traumatic events unfold. Students can be given the option for alternative work to complete. 

What are the signs that a student may be struggling? 

During this time of remote learning, it can be especially difficult to identify which students may be struggling, which is why we recommend proactively reaching out to families with links to Afghanistan at this time. Having said that, students who are feeling overwhelmed by their reaction to the situation in Afghanistan may show signs or report symptoms of their distress through remote learning interactions in one or more of the following ways:  

  • Having trouble concentrating. This may present as students asking for teacher instructions to be repeated, non-completion of work  
  • Being more quiet or more talkative than usual  
  • Sadness and tearfulness  
  • Outbursts of anger and/or aggression  
  • Hypervigilance 
  • Reduced or increased appetite  
  • Lethargy or hyperactivity  
  • Stomach aches, headaches and/or a feeling of heaviness in their limbs  
  • Expressions of feelings of guilt at being in Australia, while loved ones are suffering overseas  
  • Expressions of feeling helpless and/or hopeless  
  • Spending a lot of time on their phone. Students may be feeling a very strong need to stay in constant contact with loved ones both here and overseas. Students may be anxious to receive updates about the safety of loved ones in Afghanistan. 

Supporting Parents and Carers  

Many family members of students will be deeply affected by the crisis unfolding in Afghanistan. In addition, students, parents and grandparents may have been previously traumatised (either directly or vicariously) by the long history of conflict and poverty in Afghanistan. 

The fighting in Afghanistan, together with the COVID-19 situation in both Afghanistan and in NSW can lead to a recurrence of post-traumatic stress symptoms. Many families will appreciate a phone call from the school (for instance, from a teacher or Community Liaison Officer), checking in with their welfare at this difficult time.  

Schools can provide families with STARTTS’ contact details (9646 6800) or offer to support them to make a referral for counselling at STARTTS (Telehealth via videoconferencing or phone is available) now, or at a future time that suits them. STARTTS will also be starting up online debriefing groups for Afghan adults as soon as referral forms come in. For either individual counselling or online debriefing groups, please submit a referral form for each individual parent/guardian/grandparent that would like support from STARTTS. 

The staff member could ask the parent/carer if they are happy to receive a follow-up phone call in a month’s time to see how they are coping.  

You may also wish to share these guided relaxation tracks with families.

Self-Care  

As educators and counsellors, we are not immune to the impacts of trauma. You may find that the crisis in Afghanistan has affected you personally, perhaps through personal links to Afghanistan, triggering of previous traumas or through empathising with affected students, colleagues and community members. Some symptoms you may recognise in yourself include a change in appetite, sleep and/or mood, nightmares, intrusive imagery, trouble concentrating, memory problems, social withdrawal, increased sensitivity to violence and/or feelings of despair and hopelessness. There are several avenues through which you can seek support. 

  • Through your workplace, by seeking out professional supervision and/or through your Employee Assistance Program.  
  • Private psychological services. You can talk to your GP about a mental health care plan. 
  • Lifeline Australia (Call: 13 11 14) provides free, confidential support and is available 24/7 
  • STARTTS counselling services are available to anyone in NSW who has survived trauma (including inter-generational trauma) and has had a refugee, asylum seeker or refugee-like experience. 
  • STARTTS in Schools has produced a series of professional learning videos on Vicarious Trauma, Resilience and Self Care.  

STARTTS School Liaison Program  

For more information or to request specialist consultation, professional learning or support for you school community, please visit our website or contact Shaun Nemorin, School Liaison Team Leader, shaun.nemorin@health.nsw.gov.au  

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