Karima Laachir, her husband Sotiris Vardoulakis, and their two children are a model of a modern Australian immigrant family.
Between the four of them, there’s a flavour of Greece, North Africa, France, Britain – and now Australia.
They brought high skills to Canberra and to the Australian National University, and now they are turning those skills into a guide for children affected by fire and smoke.
They migrated from London just before the bushfires.
The children, now aged four and 10, were deeply unsettled by the yellow smoke which darkened the city for days and also by pictures of suffering animals, particularly the burnt koalas.
The experience will result in a pioneering purpose-written cartoon guide for children.
“There was a lot of distress,” Dr Laachir said of her children.
“We discovered with our own children that they were very worried about animals. ‘How can we help the koalas’,” the mother said her son and daughter asked.
Even now, when they see clouds, they assume it’s smoke and, therefore, fire, the father, Professor Vardoulakis, said.
The children had grown up in London until the parents’ new postings at the ANU, she as director of the ANU’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies and he as the ANU’s Professor of Global Environmental Health.
The new family home was in the shadow of tinder-dry Mount Ainslie.
“Our bags were packed. We were ready to go,” Dr Laachir said.
With their different academic disciplines, they’ve got together to plan a children’s book which explains fires and smoke to very young children. They’ve teamed up with an expert in childhood trauma, Professor Nicola Palfrey, also from the ANU.
And the three of them want to team up with parents and teachers to help them write the guide for children.
The academics want to set up a kind of informal focus group of people who can relay their experiences so that the book can be both informative but also entertaining.
The aim is to get the book out in time for the next bushfire season in a few months. They think it could be a template for conveying information to children about lots of types of crises, including covid.
“Over the summer, there was a lot of concern but not a lot of information,” Professor Palfrey said.
She thought the book would also help parents feel supported as they wrestle with difficult and anxious questions from their children.
The book will be translated into Turkish, Arabic and Persian so that it communicates with ethnic minority people. Professor Laachir said she was keen to get it to refugee families.
The health expert in the trio, Professor Vardoulakis, helped produce advice for adults on the health effects of prolonged smoke but he has also spoken out about the need for more knowledge. “We need to be better prepared for the next bushfire season which is not far away,” he said.