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  • Writer's pictureFlow Australia

Free hotline providing hope to those hit hard by war

With distressing images of war dominating news feeds, a multilingual hotline is providing counselling to anyone in Australia affected by global conflicts.

Feeling helpless at the mounting toll of slain Palestinians in Gaza, Fida Al Haddad left her job and joined a nationwide hotline offering trauma counselling to victims of war.

Witness to War was set up by the Forum of Australian Services to Survivors of Torture and Trauma in November after multiple global conflicts escalated, most recently Israel's war on Gaza.

Staffed by mental health practitioners and support workers who speak Arabic, Dari, Hebrew and Ukrainian, the free and confidential multilingual hotline offers incidental counselling and refers callers to services in their areas whether regional or metropolitan.

Fida Al Haddad grew up in Lebanon and intimately understands the fear and panic of armed conflict.

Ms Al Haddad, 39, who grew up in Lebanon, intimately understands the fear and panic of armed conflict.

"I experienced the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon ... so life becomes on hold with the pause and un-pause," she said.

"There has been a spike in calls with those with family ties to Gaza and Sudan from services and individuals. 

"They feel guilty because they're here and their families are not here."

Ms Al Haddad recounted the consternation of a Palestinian caller struggling to get her baby to sleep.

She was one of about 150 people who managed to escape Gaza with Australian government help, in the last four months since the conflict erupted.

The Palestinian mother described how in the six weeks since arriving, the baby was constantly crying because its emotional and psychological reactions were grounded in the upheavals of the war zone.

"The trauma is affecting that relationship because the parent is struggling themselves to sustain and manage their life," Ms Al Haddad said.

"The baby wasn't sleeping back in Gaza because they kept on moving because nowhere was safe."

With most staff based at the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors in western Sydney, the hotline runs from 10am to 7pm on Monday to Friday.

Those directly and indirectly affected by global conflicts can ring from anywhere in Australia but its impact has also reached people in Gaza.

Yassmen Yahya, the program's community engagement specialist, said she was surprised to receive a call one day from a nurse in Gaza whose wife was killed in an air strike.

"I posted the flyer for Witness to War on different Arabic-speaking Whatsapp groups and he called me," she said. 

"I was speaking to him and I could hear all the bombing and screams in the hospital.

"His wife was killed and he was with his nine-month-old daughter and he said 'I just want someone to save my little girl because she's with me in the hospital and it is not safe'."

Ziba Gulzari, senior project officer with the hotline, is also keenly attuned to the horrors of running for her life and becoming displaced.

Ziba Gulzari's experience as a refugee helps her understand those struggling to adjust in Australia.

The 50-year-old came from Afghanistan to Australia in 2006 as a refugee.

With the fall of Kabul in 2021 to the Taliban after a two-decade-long insurgency, the calls she receives from recently arrived Afghan refugees are similar to her own experience when the country was invaded by US-led troops in 2001.

"I struggled during that settlement and transition period in a host country and having that first-hand experience of being a refugee at Witness to War can provide those struggling with understanding," she said.

"They are not detaching themselves from Afghanistan which is important for them, but they are also struggling to cope with the Australian system." 

Ms Gulzari noted how experienced staff members in her team interacted with callers in their language and understood their cultures, shaping their settlement journey in Australia.

"If they don't have proper case management in place, then their trauma could double because navigating the Australian system is hard."

Even though the pain of seeing dead children in Gaza may become too much for Ms Al Haddad, she feels it is her ethical duty to keep showing up.

"I feel privileged to be able to do this, to be able to listen to someone who has family in Gaza or who has just resettled asking for legal advice or how applying for houses," she said.

"I feel privileged to have that knowledge and to be able to share it with people in need."


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