When journalist Yalda Hakim lands in a country, she heads straight to a hair salon for a blow-dry. She might be in Libya, Iraq or Afghanistan and she could be there to tell the story of some of the world’s most vulnerable people, or even interview a president. Yalda’s not concerned with her hair though. Instead, the salon is an opportunity to get close to local women.
“I get my hair done, they’re getting their hair done, they take off their head scarves and I suddenly see what’s going on under the scarves – peroxided blonde hair and incredible dazzling outfits,” she says. “Then they talk about everything from how they’re dealing with motherhood to marriage, but also politics and their place in society and what’s going on, and the struggles and challenges they face. That helps me tap into something that my male colleagues just could never, ever do.”
It’s savvy strategies like this – and the ability to speak six languages – which have set the 33-year-old Australian journalist apart and, together with a relentless drive and energy, have earned her global television success and many fans. In recent years, Yalda has travelled to South Sudan, Afghanistan, Mexico, Ghana, Sweden and Indonesia. Working for BBC World News since 2013, Yalda lives in London, where she hosts Impact, a daily rolling news program. When she’s not in the studio, Yalda is travelling the world, reporting and producing six documentaries a year, as part of the Our World series.
“Working for the BBC, I think it’s one of the few places now where there is a platform for me to be able to pick off a map a place that we want to go, a story that’s not told,” Yalda says.
With her deliberate strategy to “find a point of difference” and access women wherever she goes, Yalda believes she is often underestimated and uses that to her advantage to tell her stories.
“I feel like I can do my job better because I am a woman. I am the ‘third gender’ in some places that I go to,” she says. “They don’t recognise me – I’m not one of their women, I’m not a man, I’m a third gender – and sometimes they won’t even look at me in the room.”
“Initially, I remember being offended and thinking I’m invisible in this room; they just want to talk to the men,” she says. “But actually it gave me access to the women. It opened doors. They had their guard down, sort of thinking – well, she’s petite and how much harm can she do? But actually that helped me tap into something.”
Yalda’s own story is remarkable. Born in Afghanistan in 1983, the third of four children to Zabrina and Wali Hakim. The family fled Kabul on horseback after the Soviet Union invaded and her father faced conscription. After two years in a refugee camp in Pakistan, her family felt “incredibly blessed” when it was sponsored to Australia, arriving here when Yalda was three years old.
“I look very fondly on the journey of my parents, as do they, in Australia,” says Yalda. “I feel I am a product of this country and the opportunities I’ve received. It’s my Australian training and who I am as an Australian, and my work ethic, that’s been able to be embraced by the BBC.”
Life in detention
When the Hakims came to Australia in 1986, they stayed at the Villawood Migrant Hostel in Sydney and were provided with services such as English lessons to help them assimilate.
“For me to now look at that place and it’s a detention centre, you sort of think in 30 years so much has changed,” says Yalda. “Attitudes have hardened. Sometimes when I look at the situation, I just think it’s not the Australia I know, it’s not the country I was raised in.”
When you meet Yalda Hakim, you’re struck by her size – she’s diminutive.You also immediately notice her eyes, a hypnotic mix of hazel and amber. It’s hard not to stare. At The Weekly’s photo shoot, Yalda admits she is operating on just two-and-a-half hours’ sleep.
Her trip back to Australia is a combination of work and family time. The night before our shoot, she realised she hadn’t completed the judging for a film competition. It’s an oversight that’s kept her up until 4am. Now it’s 8.30am and Yalda is in the chair for hair and make-up – bright and cheery with a fresh face, chatting to everyone about everything from the difficulties of finding good coffee in London to the struggle of child slavery in fishing villages in Ghana. After every wardrobe change, Yalda peeks at the stunning photos, trying to choose a favourite for her family. “I’d really like a picture for my mum,” she says.
Yalda first came to the attention of Australian viewers while at SBS, where she co-hosted and reported for Dateline. Growing up in Sydney, she began writing for her local paper at just 15, work experience followed at local radio stations and TV networks Nine and Ten. She even worked at SBS for a year for free while finishing her degree.
“I just wanted to be in the space where I was learning as much as I could,” Yalda explains. “I was willing to do anything.”
A cadetship with SBS News followed and Yalda taught herself to use a camera and edit. To convince her bosses that she had what it takes to be a foreign correspondent, at just 24, she used her holidays to travel to India and Afghanistan to shoot her own stories. They were to be the first of many overseas stories and the beginning of a reporting career that continues to take her all over the globe.
Her success is no surprise to her younger sister, Mariam “Maz” Hakim. Growing up, she always knew Yalda had the “X factor” and was destined for journalism. “She knew from a very young age exactly what she wanted to do,” says Maz. “She used to draw pictures when she was eight or nine years old, look at the TV and tell me, ‘I’m going to be one of those journalists’.”
Success in the media runs in the Hakim family. Maz works for Virgin Radio in Dubai and hosts her own national program. The 30-year-old says that her parents’ story of leaving Afghanistan resonated with all of them, but especially Yalda.
“She’s kind of gone full circle in that she now gets to tell the story and experiences of what other people go through in today’s society when they are refugees or migrants,” says Maz.
“My dad used to tell us all the time to dream big and there is nothing that can limit you – aim for the sky. I think it’s incredibly important for migrant families, for the parents to push their daughters to progress and move into an industry they want to, rather than just an industry their parents think is suitable for them.”
The sisters may live in different countries, but they’re obviously close. Yalda will tell Maz where she is going on her reporting trips – but she keeps it from her parents, so as not to worry them.
“My mother is a big worrywart just like most mums are,” says Maz. “My dad’s very supportive, but still also worries.”
The other person Yalda always tells where she is going is husband of eight years, Abed Rashid. Theirs isn’t a traditional relationship; he remained in Australia for a year when Yalda first moved to London. “I needed him to come [to London] when he felt it was right, rather than just move over for me,” she explains. Now, Abed lives in Oxford, where he is an avionics engineer, and Yalda is in London. The 35-year-old former RAAF sergeant usually sees his wife about every four days. If Yalda is on assignment, the couple can spend up to two months apart due to her remote and sometimes dangerous story locations.
“When we got together, my career hadn’t kicked off,” says Yalda. “I was working in the industry, but finding my place. He was very much within the Air Force and travelling a lot. A day after we got together, he disappeared for three months.”
“I had to very much get used to that and be supportive of what he did. So when the roles reversed, he was incredibly supportive. I would describe him in many ways as a feminist. He enjoys seeing what I do.”
“A lot of people ask him how he deals with me going to dangerous places and disappearing for weeks on end, sometimes without making any communication or contact with him, and he sort of says, ‘Well I did the same thing. Why should it be any different if she is doing it?'”
Looking at her own parents’ marriage, Yalda sees many parallels with her own. Her father left Afghanistan for seven years, living in what was then Czechoslovakia, to continue his architecture studies. Her mother worked as a midwife in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, travelling into remote villages to assist women who could not access hospitals to give birth. “Because they had always had a long-distance relationship with four kids, I don’t think they find our choices bizarre,” Yalda says. “I think it’s kind of the challenge of modern- day relationships – there are no rules. People just do what works for them in that relationship and I think that’s important and healthy.
“Last year, I left London for eight weeks and I was travelling across Asia, and I came to Australia, then travelled to South Sudan to film another story. Perhaps if we had children the dynamics would change – that I couldn’t disappear for eight weeks because there would be someone else who’s dependent on me,” she says.
It’s with some frustration that Yalda deals with the question of children, admitting it “plays in the back” of her mind. She says no one at the BBC has asked her whether she plans to have children, but describes it as “shameful” that, in 2017, young women are made to feel worried and stressed about the decision.
“Eventually, I’d like to think about having children and I hope that for the generation 10 years younger than me or younger, it’s not something that worries them,” she says.
“Women who have built a career and enjoy their work, you do think the whole notion of having it all is actually false. It’s a false pressure that’s put on women that we need to somehow make everything work. It’s about actually figuring out what works for you and your life.”
When she gets back to Australia, Yalda likes to stay home. “I sit on Mum’s couch,” she says. “All she wants to do is look after me.”
Which is hardly surprising, given that Yalda spends so much time in some of the world’s most dangerous countries. Trips to Afghanistan – the country of her birth – have been particularly eye-opening for the reporter. She realised her fate could have been very different when she reported for Dateline on drug-addicted women and babies being treated in a rehabilitation centre there. “I was confronted by the things I saw and the difference in their life to mine, the freedoms that I had,” she says. “It absolutely made me think and sort of look at some of those women, and feel like I was looking at a reflection of myself, but worlds apart.”
Yalda freely admits that she can get too close to her stories and she struggles with work/life balance. Yet she can’t imagine doing anything else.
“The dominant factor in my life, above and beyond anything, remains my career and perhaps that is something that I need to work on,” she admits. “I still can’t find the balance.
“You need a very supportive network of people around you to understand that you’re not going to make that dinner. That you will unfortunately choose the job and the trip, and what you have to do, over what’s been planned for weeks,” Yalda says.
“The day that I become desensitised and the day that I stop caring about the stories that I do, I need to stop, I need to move on and do something else. I can see a lot of bad things, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t impact me in some way. It just drives me. It drives me to go back each time.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 edition of The Australian Women’s Weekly.