26 October 2023
STARTTS recognises that the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh has a long and complex history and that there are a multitude of views on the situation. As a member of FASSTT (Forum of Australian Services for Survivors of Torture and Trauma) and the IRCT (International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims), STARTTS decries the use of any violence that breaches international human rights and humanitarian law. STARTTS supports the recovery of all survivors of torture, war, political persecution and organised violence (and their descendants) who have come to NSW from overseas. Please note that the contents of this article may distress some readers.
In mid-June 2023, Azerbaijan intensified a blockade of the only road (the Lachin Corridor), that connects Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. This action blocked the entry of all humanitarian goods, including fuel, food and medication to the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. The total blockade came on the back of a 34-year economic blockade which, in December 2022, turned into blockade of all civilian and commercial traffic, resulting in severe shortages of food and medical supplies. Nagorno-Karabakh is a self-declared breakaway state which is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but (until recently) populated largely by ethnic Armenians. However, a sizable minority of Azeris did live in Nagorno-Karabakh up until the early 1990s, when they were expelled during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War.
On 19 September, Azerbaijan forces entered Nagorno-Karabakh and began attacking the territory with heavy artillery fire. The 2000 Russian peacekeeping forces stationed there did not intervene, despite being stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh since the 2020 Russian-brokered peace deal. Two days later, ethnic Armenian armed groups in the region surrendered. Since September 24, over 100, 000 ethnic Armenians have fled Nagorno-Karabakh to seek refuge in Armenia. Refugees described spending multiple days with little or no food or water, squashed into cars that slowly made their way along the clogged Lachin Road out of Nagorno-Karabakh. A few hundred ethnic Armenians, including those who are sick, elderly and disabled were left behind. Some of these people have been located and rescued by the Red Cross.
Which students in Australian schools are likely to be affected?
In Australia, students may be directly or indirectly exposed to images, footage and audio of the violence that has been occurring in Nagorno-Karabakh, leading to vicarious trauma symptoms including intrusive thoughts, difficulty concentrating and sleep disturbances.
Students are likely witnessing their parents/carers in a state of distress and grief about the violence and loss of life that has occurred in the region in addition to Armenians’ loss of their connection to their ancestral land. The upsetting circumstances in many families may also lead to tension and conflict within the home, which adversely impacts on children.
According to the 2021 census, there are 22 520 Australian residents of Armenian descent and 1260 Australian residents with Azerbaijani descent. While students of both Armenian and Azerberjani heritage are likely to be impacted by the conflict, it is likely that Armenian-Australians are more acutely affected by the current conflict as they are more likely to have links to the refugees fleeing Nagorno-Karabekh. However, the conflict is likely also triggering for Azeris due to the expulsion of 500 000 Azeris from Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s.
How can I support my students?
- For high school students, ensure that at least one staff member with whom the student has rapport, has been in touch with the student to ask how they and their loved ones are coping with the situation. Remind the student of the supports available to them within the school community. Arrange to catch up with the student regularly to monitor their wellbeing.
- For primary school students, ensure that a staff member checks in regularly with a parent/guardian to discuss how they and their child are coping. Allow students and parents/guardians to control how much they disclose to you.
- 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.
Make Appropriate Referrals
- Ask the student (and/or parent/guardian) what would help them most at this time and make appropriate referrals.
- Referrals to STARTTS can be made by completing our referral form.
- 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)
- Support students to report their experiences of discrimination or vilification to the Anti-Discrimination NSW
Create a Calm and Predictable Environment
- It is important that educators remain impartial in their discussions with students and instead focus on the social and emotional wellbeing of their students.
- Provide students with a predictable class routine and prepare them for any changes where possible. Explain the purpose of schoolwork activities.
- Discuss options for calming and comfort with students for if they become overwhelmed during 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, connecting 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.
- 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.
- 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 might be challenging for a student who is presently redefining their worldview while traumatic events unfold. It may be important to consider how to sensitively present these topics and be aware of the needs of students to have control over their experiences during this time. Students may need to be given the option for alternative work to complete.
- Remind the student that education can serve as a refuge from the stressful situation providing routine, purpose, interest, positivity and hope. Remind the student how they can seek help with schoolwork.
What are the signs that a student may be struggling?
Students who are feeling overwhelmed by their reaction to the war may show signs or report symptoms of their distress 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
- 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 the conflict zone.
Supporting Parents and Carers
Many family members of students will be deeply affected by the conflict. 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. It can be helpful to prepare parents/guardians via SMS ahead of time, that you will be calling and what the purpose of your call is. The staff member could ask the parent/guardian if they are happy to receive a follow-up phone call in a couple of weeks’ time to see how they are coping.
Schools can offer to support families to make a referral for counselling at STARTTS.
As educators and counsellors, we are not immune to the impacts of trauma. You may find that the confict has affected you personally, perhaps through personal links to the region, 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, seeking 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.
- Vicarious Trauma and Resilience Part 1: Introduction
- Vicarious Trauma and Resilience Part 2: Consequences of Trauma
- Vicarious Trauma and Resilience Part 3: Impacts on the Practitioner
- Vicarious Trauma and Resilience Part 4: Boundaries
- Vicarious Trauma and Resilience Part 5: Resilience and Post-Traumatic Growth
- Vicarious Trauma and Resilience Part 6: Self Care and Seeking Support