She has travelled through war-torn regions in Yemen, Libya and Iraq for her work but for Yalda Hakim’s parents, it is her trips to Afghanistan they find the hardest to understand.
Their resistance is understandable. Her parents – a nurse and an architect – left Afghanistan in 1987 with their son and two daughters in tow. Hakim, now a London-based foreign correspondent with the BBC, was just three when they arrived in Australia.
After university she secured a cadetship with SBS where she stayed for almost 10 years, reporting from The Middle East, America, Europe and Africa, eventually hosting Dateline. Her career highlights are impressive; she’s interviewed the President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, and accompanied him to Pakistan for talks with President Asif Ali Zardari and Iran’s leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about peace in the region. She was on the ground in Libya as the people fought to overturn Gaddafi’s rule and then reported on the resulting refugee crisis in Tunisia as thousands fled the conflict.
Hakim took up a position in London with the BBC in December last year and her brief is similar; to tell the untold stories behind the tragedies and events that dominate headlines.
“After the initial media attention that comes with any major world event, the film crews leave and these regions are then coming to grips with what has happened,” she says. “Those stories aren’t always told but often they should be.”
It is hard to imagine a person more apposite for life as a foreign correspondent than Hakim; she is fluent in six languages including Urdu, and Hindi and is learning Mandarin. She is unassuming but disarmingly articulate, thoughtful and considered. Of course her personal history lends itself to relating to the global events on which she reports in a way others might not.
Equally, though, her history makes the job fraught for her in ways it might not be for other correspondents. In 2008 she planned to visit Kabul for a story on SBS’s Dateline, the first time she would return to her country of origin.
“When I told my parents I was travelling to Afghanistan they weren’t necessarily supportive or understanding,” Hakim says. “It was, and still is, confronting for them because they really understand the turmoil and the risks there. They know it because they lived with it.”
Hakim, who was back in Sydney to cover the Federal election for the BBC, explains to Women’s Agenda that the prospect of her father being conscripted into the army following Russia’s invasion prompted her family’s move to Sydney in 1987. A mutual friend in Kabul arranged for them to be sponsored by a family in St Ives.
“A friend of my parents in Afghanistan rang a family in Australia whom he knew and explained the situation,” Hakim says. “Basically he said I think this young family would do really well in Australia and three weeks later we were here.”
Hakim says her family is perpetually grateful for the kindness extended to them by strangers and then the community.
“Australia really opened its arms to my family,” she says.
Her parents both went back to university when they first arrived and the whole family flourished with the freedom and opportunities Australia afforded to them all.
“I would describe us as very proud Afghan-Australians,” she tells Women’s Agenda. “The attitude with which my family was embraced really reflects well on Australia’s culture.”
Technically they weren’t refugees but her family’s history makes it difficult to dismiss the plight of the asylum seekers that have been front and centre in Australia’s media for months.
Whilst covering the election campaign Hakim and her crew met an Iraqi man in Sydney on a temporary bridging visa. His fate lay in the balance last Saturday and following the result one of her colleagues asked her if it meant he’d have to return.
“It dawned on me that this man who we’d met, who had spent $16,000 to get here, would be sent back,” she says. “He just wants the same thing my parents wanted 30 years ago and when you make that personal connection it can be quite confronting.”
The fact she has spent a considerable chunk of time reporting from Iraq this year further compounds it. In the same way that Hakim’s parents can relate too well to the risks entailed with a visit to Afghanistan, she knows too well how Iraq looks and feels at the moment.
“As he said he didn’t spend $16,000, risk his life and flee because he felt he had another choice,” Hakim says.
She recognises the importance of border protection policies but also relates to the situation that refugees face. Her position is quite unique; how many other Australian citizens would understand the situation – from all sides of the fence – as intimately? Not just from the perspective of being part of a family that fled Afghanistan and then enjoyed the freedom and peace in Australia, but, also, from the perspective of having spent weeks immersed in Libya and Sudan and Iraq seeing, first-hand the atrocities from which refugees seek to escape?
“I know from my parents’ experience what it is like to be in a situation where you just want to live with peace and from the time I spend in places like Iraq I know that people just want the same thing,” she says. “I have benefitted enormously from the opportunities in Australia and understand why people seek it out.”