By Rachelle Coe & Nicole…
On 15 April 2023, violent clashes broke out in Khartoum, between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The generals of these two factions are the President of Sudan (Gen. Abdel Fattah Al Burhan, of the SAF) and the Vice President of Sudan (Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo of the RSF). Dagalo was the leader of the Janjaweed militia during the War in Dafur, that started in 2003. Janjaweed committed multiple atrocities in Dafur, including rape, killings and genocide of non-Arab Dafurians. In 2013, Janjaweed fighters were rebranded as the RSF.
Burhan and Dagalo worked together in the past. In 2019, they joined forces to take over the government, which was then headed by President Omar al-Bashir. Following this, they entered into a civilian-military power-sharing agreement. But in 2021, the SAF and RSF worked together to remove the civilian component of the government. More recently, disagreements emerged between Burhan and Dagalo during negotiations on how to integrate the RSF into the SAF. The current violent conflict has emerged from a lack of agreement by the two generals about who would have ultimate control over the troops and what the future government of Sudan should look like.
Presently, Burhan is insisting that the military will have to share power with civilian politicians and that he will only hand over power to an elected government. Many are sceptical that these are his true intentions. Dagalo is currently presenting himself as representing the people of Sudan and being against the political elite from the Khartoum and Nile regions. He has some support from the Arab people of the Dafur and South Kordofan regions, but most non-Arab residents remain sceptical because of RSF’s/Janjaweed’s history of attacking civilians.
How are civilians in Sudan being affected?
Fierce clashes, including air strikes, ground battles and heavy gunfire have been occurring in Khartoum, North Khartoum and Omdurman. Snipers are operating throughout Khartoum. There have also been clashes between SAF and RSF militias in the Dafur, Kordofan, Blue Nile and Gedarif regions.
As of 11 May 2023, more than 700 000 people in Sudan have been displaced internally or across borders into Chad, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Libya and Egypt. Most of these refugees are experiencing extreme deprivation.
According to the World Health Organisation, 600 people have died and 5000 have been injured due to the conflict, however the true figures are likely much higher. Most hospitals are no longer operational. In Khartoum, for instance, only 16% of hospitals are operating at full capacity. Widespread looting of hospitals and other building is also taking place. Medicines are in short supply and many pharmacies have closed.
The UN World Food Programme has estimated that up to 2.5 million more Sudanese will experience acute food security over the coming months because of this conflict.
Witnesses have reported the suffering and death unfolding around them:
- In the initial 3-4 days of the conflict many people were unable to leave their workplaces and universities. Children were locked in their schools until it was safe enough for them to travel home. People died of starvation and thirst in these situations.
- Seeing bodies strewn along streets.
- People dying in their homes from starvation, thirst and lack of access to medical care.
- People not being able to bury their dead relatives
- People dying in nursing homes in heavily shelled areas, as there were no carers to look after them.
- Christians (a minority religious group in Sudan), are being targeted with attacks on businesses, churches and homes.
Which students are likely to be affected?
Students with relatives in Sudan and South Sudan
Students who identify as Sudanese or South Sudanese are likely to be impacted by the current conflict. These students’ parents/guardians/grandparents likely migrated to Australia as refugees from the Second Sudanese Civil War that occurred between 1983 and 2005. South Sudan gained its independence in 2011 and many South Sudanese Australians may still have relatives caught up in the conflict in Sudan. Many South Sudanese people have now been forced to flee back to South Sudan, despite having rebuilt their lives in Sudan following the Second Sudanese Civil War.
Before April 2023, 800,000 South Sudanese lived in Sudan. In most cases, South Sudanese chose to live there because Sudan seemed to be a more stable country than South Sudan. Since the current conflict in Sudan erupted, the UNHCR has recorded that more than 90% of the 30,000 refugees fleeing to South Sudan, are South Sudanese.
In Australia, students may be directly or indirectly exposed to images, footage and audio of the atrocities occurring in Sudan 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 situation in Sudan. The upsetting circumstances in many families may also lead to tension and conflict within the home, which adversely impacts on children.
There are currently Sudanese people in Australia on temporary work or student visas. Sudanese people on these visas are typically from Sudan, rather than South Sudan, and they may have school-aged children. People on these temporary visas are likely very fearful of being forced to return to Sudan at this time.
Students with links to neighbouring countries such as Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, C.A.R, Chad and Libya.
The conflict in Sudan has the potential to exacerbate instability in neighbouring countries, due to factors such as food insecurity, limited resources to accommodate Sudanese refugees and increased flows of weapons and armed personnel across borders. Families with links to these countries are likely very concerned about deteriorating security.
How can I support my students?
How can I support students with Sudanese and South Sudanese heritage?
- 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. 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Whole of class
In high school settings, you may consider communicating with parents and guardians about your intention to make time during the school day to acknowledge the crisis unfolding in Sudan. This will give parents/guardians the opportunity to discuss any concerns with you about how such conversations will be handled. Ideally, a School Counsellor is present to co-facilitate these whole-class discussions. A class discussion may involve:
- Validating the emotions they feel in response to this conflict
- Reminding students of the supports available to them within the school community
- Inviting students to let you know if the situation is affecting their sleep, schoolwork, friendships or family life
- Talking to students about the risks of vicarious trauma through viewing/reading media/social media about the crisis and discussing how students can limit their exposure
- Acknowledging student desire to support people affected by the crisis and discuss how the class might show their support through fundraising for a charity. Schools need to be mindful that this may be a cause of tension amongst students and/or parents depending on their perspectives on the conflict, and decisions about this should be made thoughtfully.
What are the signs that a student may be struggling?
Students who are feeling overwhelmed by their reaction to the situation in Sudan 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 Sudan.
Supporting Parents and Carers
Many family members of students will be deeply affected by the crisis unfolding in Sudan. 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 provide families with STARTTS’ contact details (9646 6800), or offer to support them 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 crisis in Sudan has affected you personally, perhaps through personal links to Sudan, 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