Universiteit Leiden

nl en

Students with a connection to Israel or Palestine together in a support group

Psychology lecturer Sepideh Saadat is leading a support group for students affected by the Israel-Hamas war. In four sessions she brings together students with ties to Israel or Palestine to talk about their thoughts and feelings. ‘Although we offered the option of creating separate groups, they all wanted to join a mixed group.’

‘It’s wonderful to see that this is a natural desire stemming from the communities themselves.’ Saadat, who also practises as a clinical psychologist, aims to create a safe space for these students. ‘Some of them feel guilty about enjoying life while their family is suffering. These events shatter the psyche of our students.

How do students grapple with a crisis that’s geographically so far away, but emotionally so close? How does Saadat support them? And what can we, as students and staff, do to support those around us who are in emotional distress?

Lesson 1: Understand the complex ways in which students react to a crisis

‘The first time I saw what a big impact a global crisis can have was in February 2021, when the Ukraine war started. I taught the interpersonal and professional skills class and saw that students from that region were distracted, absent minded. They couldn’t really be invested anymore in the subject matter, something in their minds was competing for their attention. This happened again after the earthquake in Turkey.

This September, I wrote a blog, calling for a more structural way of supporting these students as a university. And a month later, Hamas attacked Israel. Late at night, I got messages from students, talking about what their families were going through, that they had trouble keeping everything together.

These students are expected to continue their normal lives, while also dealing with grief and uncertainty. This triggers a complex array of emotions. A lot of them struggle with survivor’s guilt: they’re safe and comfortable here, maybe even having fun, while their family may be suffering. And then, when trying to reach their families, internet may get cut off or be unstable. As a result, some students are glued to their screens, surrounded by their smartphone TV and a laptop, constantly consuming the news. This can then lead to sleep problems, some students might distance themselves from their social lives and not come to the university anymore. Events like this shatter the psyche of our students. I think we need a structural support system to reduce the risk of students spiralling down like this.’   

Saadat: 'Besides offering a safe space, I also try to provide practical skills. Such as: how do you consume news in a healthier way?

Lesson 2: Offer a safe space to process these emotions and learn practical skills

‘We’re not working with a fixed group: if you apply, you can join the next session as a new member. We focus mostly on making these students feel heard and seen, that’s what they need most: the feeling that the university has their back. A lot of international students don’t feel at home yet, but once you start supporting them, they will have an easier time.’

'But besides offering a safe space, I also try to provide practical skills. Such as: how do you consume news in a healthier way? We really need to destigmatise the idea that if you consume less news, you care less, because this idea can make students feel guilty. We also talk about how to improve attention, how to improve sleep. And how to bring order into the mental chaos that’s going on inside your head, so that you can focus on the assignment in front of you?

‘Some students feel that they’ve suddenly and unwantedly become the centre of attention. A professor might touch on the subject in class and ask the student: “You’re from that region, what do you think?” These students are suddenly seen as a representative of their country, while they’re mourning and wondering if their family members are still alive. Maybe they don’t feel comfortable with expressing their opinion. That’s why we also practise how to communicate boundaries.’

Lesson 3: Check in with the other person, even (or: especially) when it feels uncomfortable

‘I went through a tough time myself last year, after the killing of Mahsa Amini and the start of the women’s freedom movement in Iran. Luckily, I had very supportive colleagues; that really meant everything. What does that support look like? Regularly checking in, asking if I’m okay. Very basic things, but they made me feel less alone.

‘Understandably, it can be scary to address this topic with fellow students or colleagues, especially when it’s about politically sensitive situations like this. But you could say something like: “Hey, I don't expect you to tell me anything, I just want to be here for you as a friend and just check in on you. Is your family okay? How are you coping these days, is there anything I can help you with?” You don’t want a political debate with the person, right, you just want to connect with them on a human level. That’s what we also do in these support groups. It’s not a political forum, but an emotional forum. These sessions prove you can separate the two very well.’ 

Towards an organised support system

The four support groups for the Israel-Gaza crisis is part of a pilot programme. Together with student psychologists and the Executive Board, Saadat is currently working on rolling out an organised communication system in which students can be directly contacted after a crisis hits their home country.

This website uses cookies.  More information.