Syrian-Armenian sisters shine a light on healing power of music on Mental Health Day

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New South Wales state parliament was treated to very special performance to mark World Mental Health Day which this year hoped to raise awareness to youth trauma and depression, with a particular focus on refugees.

Across Australia World Mental Health Day was marked with a series of call to arms to governments, advocacy groups and everyday Australians to be on alert for any signs of mental health issues in local communities.

At the New South Wales state parliament, Syrian and Iraqi refugees now based in western Sydney performed two classic Arabian songs to an audience that included Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

The students from Cabramatta High School are being mentored by the Sydney Conservatorium of Music High School, as part of a program initiated by the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS).

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Young refugees turn to music therapy to overcome trauma
Young refugees turn to music therapy to overcome trauma

Conservatorium High School acting principal Ian Barker told SBS World News music was being used to help the new arrivals heal and connect.

Half of mental health conditions emerge in Australians by the age of 14, while refugees are also high risk of post-traumatic stress.

"The idea was that we had students who have had really suffered extreme trauma or tragedy in their life, but they get to express themselves in a loving and an artistic way and to project themselves into their new community,” Mr Barker said.

“It's so powerful and the idea of really joyfully welcoming these people to Australia and saying that we value their music, we value them as people, we value what they bring to our country."

STARTTS cultural development officer Jiva Parthipan added the program was extremely effective for refugees coming from countries with limited mental health services.

"Especially with people who are not counselling and other psychological services, and they're not used to that one-to-one paradigm, music and other group activities are a better way of intervention with people," Mr Parthipan told SBS.

Performing at NSW Parliament were Syrian-Armenian sisters Meghrig, 18, and Serly Awnjian, 16, who have been musicians since childhood.

World Mental Health Day
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian meets Iraqi and Syrian refugees, now musicians and students in western Sydney. (SBS News/Omar Dabbagh)
SBS/Omar Dabbagh

Meghrig is a master of Arabian string instrument the qanun and Serly plays the violin. They have only been in Australia since the start of the year after fleeing the Syrian civil war.

"It was very hard to leave our cousins or families but it's good to be in Australia and to be an Australian of course we are proud, it is our country too,” Serly Awnjian told SBS World News.

"The music is the most important part of our life," older sister Meghrig said.

“You can relax sometimes and we practice together, it's nice."

"And sometimes we forget everything when we play the instruments, like it helps us too much," Serly added.

"I myself remember when I was in Iraq when I was young, I didn’t have the opportunity to learn music from anyone,” their music teacher, Ehab Hadi, said.

“Many of them have seen very tragic things, what happened in their lives. So for me to teach them music and see them actually feeling happy and feeling better playing music, that means a lot to me."

Prior to the performance, the sisters met New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian - whose parents were also Armenian immigrants.

The Premier used her address to advocate for greater awareness and empathy towards mental health.

"All of us are touched by mental health issues in some way, either directly or through loved ones, and it's so important for all us to know that support is available,” she said.

“All of us need to do more; whether we’re a non-government organisation, an organisation providing services, or government itself, or members of the community checking up on our neighbours and each other.”

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