Shafaq News/ Rula Salmo is humming to an original song in Arabic, played softly on the guitar by her music teacher Bashar Hanna at a community arts room in Sydney's west.
Called Mother Earth, the lyrics describe living in peace, without war. It's a theme that resonates with teacher and student, both of whom fled Baghdad as refugees and remain haunted by memories of conflict.
Rula fled to Jordan as a teenager with her parents in 2003 after their family members were kidnapped and held for ransom. Although Rula's brother escaped, her grandfather remained trapped.
“It was a horrible feeling because we didn't know what was going to happen to my grandfather. He [was held hostage] for nine days," the 30-year-old says.
“My family had to sell two of their factories to get my grandfather back.”
During the lockdowns and social restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, memories of that trauma have resurfaced, she says.
“It's a very stressful time. People can start thinking very negatively. Are we going to be running out of food and drink? What is going to happen to us? Will we lose our jobs? It’s a very stressful time.”
Both Rula and Bashar came to Australia as skilled migrants. Rula is now a high school maths teacher and is among almost 500 people - many of them refugees and those fleeing war zones - who have studied with Bashar over the past 17 years.
Bashar understands what it's like to live in a war zone. He grew up in Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
“Aero planes and fighters were everywhere, bombs were everywhere, and anybody could get killed at any minute," he says.
“And the people who were fighting at the front line; families were losing their sons, their children, their relatives. It's hard for a child to grow up in that environment.”
After re-settling in Australia, the engineer retrained as a real estate agent before joining the Department of Immigration and Citizenship funded IHSS program as a case coordinator where he was exposed to the challenges facing newly-arrived refugees.
He founded several art-based therapy groups including The Choir of Love, which partners with STARTTS, the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors.
Next month, they are hoping to get back on stage for their first public performance.
"I am very excited, it will be great to connect with people again," Rula says.
Bashar says during the past year many have benefited from learning and performing music.
“COVID-19 has triggered post-traumatic stress disorder for many people. A large number of refugees are from war zones and they have memories that are really painful. The trauma they have suffered needs just a little trigger to come back.”
Some migrant support services say they have seen a huge increase in requests for help.
“We have had a quadrupling in demand,” says Jana Favero, advocacy director at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.
“We're shattered as an organization. Everyone is tired, overwhelmed, overworked beyond our capacity.