Australian migrants who escaped war are being re-traumatised by the coronavirus crisis

Psychologist Muradiye Selvi runs a multilingual practice in Melbourne. Source: SBS News

Leading psychologists have welcomed the government's boost for mental health services and say particular sectors of Australia’s migrant community are uniquely affected by the impacts of coronavirus.

Kenan Rahmanovic fled Sarajevo as a teenager with his family soon after war broke out, arriving in Melbourne as a refugee in 1995.

Now 40, he can still remember the food shortages during the lead up to the Bosnian War in 1992.

“My mum sent me over to a local supermarket, which was just across the road, to get bread and milk,” he told SBS News. “And I remember seeing that, literally, the shelves were bare; there's no milk, there is no flour or meat.”

“People were waiting at the petrol bowsers, waiting for a whole day to fill up the car because the queues were kilometres long.”

Kenan Rahmanovic
Kenan Rahmanovic in Melbourne aged 17, soon after his arrival in Australia.

Now a clinical psychologist working in Melbourne’s multicultural suburb of Coburg, Mr Rahmanovic says he is seeing similarities play out here as Australians exhibit panic-buying amid the coronavirus crisis.

“The anxiety on people's faces, the tension, the gritting of teeth and lack of smiles, it's here now in supermarkets,” he said. 

Memories of war in Sarajevo still haunt him, and he is not alone.

“I've seen people who have gone through war, who have experienced a lack of food, and who are extremely triggered by what is happening,” he said. 

“They are being re-traumatised by the experience and having a very difficult time coping.”

“There's a restriction of movement. People can't be with their loved ones. Some are separated across the world.”

“So there's the fear of getting sick and dying, you know, it's a real fear.”


Mental health services have experienced a rise in demand as Australians seek help during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the Federal Government has expanded Medicare subsidies for Telehealth to the entire population under a $1.1 billion package.  

The funding boost will allow all Australians with a mental health care plan, to consult their health practitioner by phone or video call, such as FaceTime or Skype, meaning they can still access mental health services while quarantining or socially distancing at home. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Sunday: "As we battle coronavirus on both the health and economic fronts with significant support packages in place and more to come, I am very aware many Australians are understandably anxious, stressed and fearful about the impacts of coronavirus and what it brings." 

"We will get through this crisis by staying together, by supporting each other and ensuring that no Australian, even though we have to be isolated, should have to go through this alone."

Psychologists have welcomed the move. 

"There is a perfect storm brew brewing in terms of mental health. We know that in situations like this, incidences of suicide, for example, are likely to rise,” said the president of the Australian Psychologists Association Anne Marie Collins.

The association, as well as other organisations, pushed for the expanded Medicare rebates to ensure people in isolation don’t miss out on mental health support when it’s needed.

“There is an increase in fear and anxiety in the population already because of the virus,” Ms Collins said.

“It's a normal and human reaction when such a pandemic is happening.”

Mr Rahmanovic works at a psychology practice with consultant psychologist Muradiye Selvi, who is also a leader in Melbourne’s Turkish business community. 

She migrated to Australia with her family when she was five years old. 

Psychologist Muradiye Selvi runs a multilingual practice in Melbourne.
Psychologist Muradiye Selvi runs a multilingual practice in Melbourne.
SBS News

One of Ms Selvi’s clients impacted by travel bans is a 55-year-old migrant from Turkey who has a chronic anxiety condition and is currently in isolation in the Turkish city of Samsun. 

Ms Selvi is supporting the woman’s Australian family, including her daughter Dillon, who is frantically trying to book flights, no matter what cost, to bring her mother home.  

“It’s been very difficult because she is super upset and not being able to do anything, that’s the hardest thing,” Dillon said of her mother. 

They speak online every day and Dillon checks to ensure her mother has a ready supply of medication. Even so, she says she worries constantly.

“[My mother] sees Ms Selvi regularly, and so not being able to do that is concerning. Obviously mental health can get a lot worse in isolation,” she said.  

“Isolation is not good, it brings about unwanted thoughts and desperation.”

Ms Selvi says self-isolation during the COVID-19 crisis is traumatic for some clients, including those with limited English skills.

“The stress is about not having access to members of the family. The stress is about the language difficulties and not being able to fully understand what's going on,” she said. 

Ms Selvi’s practice is increasing video consultations, although clients can also get help by phone. Bilingual psychologists also conduct counselling in-language, sometimes for free.

“Not everybody has the capacity to pay for services. We've got students on bridging visas, we've got people who don't qualify under the mental health care plan,” she said. 

Information on looking after your mental health during the coronavirus outbreak is available at

Readers seeking further support can contact Lifeline crisis support on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 and Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (for young people aged 5 to 25). Embrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. 

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at

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