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Rachel Smalley on challenges, conflict and making it count

She’s been both applauded and vilified for her work in the Middle East, but early-morning radio host Rachel Smalley is determined the millions of Syrian refugees are not forgotten.

Rachel Smalley leaps out of her car and begs me to turn a blind eye to her garden. She calls it her “casualty of Syria and Iraq”, with a sigh and a smile.
Too late. I’ve beaten her home from her dawn-breaking, on-air radio shift, and have already taken a wander through the native bush that encircles her home, high on a ridge above Auckland’s wild west coast.
Yes, the once prolific veges in their neatly-built raised beds have gone to seed. But the neglect is minimal – and also justifiable. It’s the consequence of broadcaster Rachel’s heart-rending visit to refugee camps in the Middle East, followed by her efforts here at home to help Syria’s ‘forgotten millions’.
This garden is Rachel’s escape – a respite from the pressures of a highly-public career as the host of Newstalk ZB’s Early Edition show, the sometimes vicious feedback she finds in her mailbox, and the memories of squalor and despair she witnessed in Lebanon and Iraqi Kurdistan when working with World Vision.
She usually weeds around the leafy greens and fledgling kowhai trees when she gets home from work, or after she collects her six-year-old son, Finn, from school. “We potter around – he probably does more damage than good, but you roll with it,” Rachel, 43, laughs. She watches over her five kauri trees like a protective mother, as the dreaded die-back disease creeps up the valley.
“I love working in my garden; I can get a quiet sense of achievement. And I can come up with my next plan.”
The seeds of ideas Rachel is now sowing centre around 13.5 million displaced Syrians – including 6.5 million children – forced to flee their homes over the past four years, in desperate need of humanitarian aid. She can’t forget the refugees and she’s determined not to give up on them either.
“The children I met, the mothers, the young women, will still be in those camps, still needing help and not asking for it,” she says.
Rachel Smalley says it's hard to put a finger on why the plight of the refugees resonates with her so much.
She came away from this Middle East visit with World Vision “changed for life” – more affected by it than any of her previous assignments into the world’s conflict zones.
“But as much as it is distressing, traumatic and takes chunks out of your heart while you’re there, I’d go back tomorrow,” she says. In fact, she has thoughts of possibly returning to Lebanon before the end of this year.
It’s not simple easing back into everyday life in Auckland – her comfortable, warm, two-storeyed house with its stunning views of Karekare and the turquoise Tasman Sea beyond, is far removed from the damp, cold tents in the Bekaa Valley camp, with their dirt floors and soggy cardboard walls.
“For a while, my mind is still in Lebanon,” she says.
“I know I’m a pain in the backside to my friends when I get back – I’m more irritable about First World issues,” she continues. “I don’t want to hear about what happened at school, or getting stuck in traffic.” And then she makes her friends cry, as she recounts the refugees’ stories of loss, degradation and an almost inconceivable unwavering hope that one day they will also get to go home.
The past 18 months have been challenging in their own way for Rachel, after switching from television to radio, where she’s still learning the ropes and figuring out how to handle caustic listener critiques.
She even copped abuse for her decision to go to the Middle East. Messages filled with bile and vitriol, sent via social media and handwritten notes, questioned her role as a journalist and a mother.
Missives like: “I’ve heard of people doing stupid things before, but you take the cake... It’s a wonder you didn’t get captured by rebels. You deserve to be.”
But, for Rachel, the Forgotten Millions assignment was, in some ways, cathartic – and it definitely sparked a shift in her perspective.
“After meeting people who are clinging to life and dealing with challenges fired at them every day, it’s become much easier to bat off the abuse. I’ve got better at dealing with some of the venom – I can compartmentalise it now,” Rachel says.
“Have I got a thicker skin? I don’t think I want one – I don’t want to be a thick-skinned mother, wife or daughter. I’ve got better at accepting that some people are never going to see things
how I would like them to. If only they could put their energy into something that was more helpful, more worthwhile to the world.”
Fully aware of the risks every time she ventures into a war-torn country, Rachel and her husband, Luke, a freelance television editor, discuss at length the trials and hazards of these assignments.
“We have to be comfortable with it as a family,” says Rachel, a devoted mum to blonde, blue-eyed Finn, who loves Lego, dinosaurs and mud.
“I’m not sure if there will come a time when Finn asks me not to go to some of these troubled areas. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, as a family. At the moment, he understands I go overseas to help some children who don’t have a lot of food, and he’s happy with that.”
Rachel Smalley with her boy, Finn.
Finn is still at the age of innocence, almost oblivious to the fact that his mum has already finished work by the time he is heading off to school. Often, Rachel drives home and squeezes into Finn’s boy-sized fire engine bed before he wakes. “And he thinks I’ve just got up.”
But Rachel has still to get used to the graveyard-shift hours, driving 40km into the city each morning at 3am to be on-air by 5am. “It’s okay because I know I won’t be doing these hours for ever.”
She sometimes fills in on Larry Williams’ Drive show in a more respectable early-evening slot. “But at the moment, they’re reasonably good hours when you have a six-year-old.”
Radio is where her journalistic career began back in 1997, and she loves it. Her Early Edition news show is the number-one show in its timeslot across the country’s airwaves, capturing a quarter of radio listeners at sunrise.
“I love the intimacy of radio – just you and the microphone, and one listener you’re always thinking of,” she says. Her single listener? Well, she imagines it would be her beloved grandmother, Myrtle Mackie. Although Myrtle, a dyed-in-the-wool ZB fan, passed away five years ago at the age of 88, Rachel sometimes likes to think that she would be listening – “particularly when it’s a tough subject”.
“Her world, in Christchurch, was really small, but she was the wisest woman I’ve ever known. I think she would be proud of what I do – proud of me going into the Middle East, despite the unrest. She was always a fan of being a good neighbour.”
Rachel’s no stranger to conflict zones, having been to Afghanistan, Jordan, Lebanon and West Africa in her past television role at TV3. But before this latest visit earlier this year – her second to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon – Rachel harboured some doubts.
“On the plane over there, I felt ill. I questioned whether I was even the right person to do this – to try to humanise this disaster, to make others understand the enormity of the crisis. The trouble lies with the way we report it in our news – ‘Should we send 160 New Zealand troops over there?’ and watching men in orange jumpsuits being paraded by ISIS. It means there’s little understanding of, or empathy for, the millions caught in the middle.
“It’s hard to put a finger on why their plight resonates with me to the degree it does. But part of it is empathy – what if you were in the same situation, and everyone else forgot about you?”
Rachel was able to share some lighter moments with the women and children in the refugee camp.
The Bekaa Valley, which has been revered for centuries as a lush oasis where wine grapes flourish, is now near breaking point, with makeshift camps housing the vast majority of Lebanon’s 1.5 million Syrian refugees. The horror of their circumstances would sometimes upset Rachel to the point she’d have to leave the tents and sit in a car for an hour, sipping water in silence.
Although she’s used to sparring with cantankerous politicians and newsmakers, it’s a 13-year-old Syrian boy who brought Rachel to tears. He was alone in the camp – his parents trapped across the border. The boy sells chewing gum to make money.
“Other boys tease him because he walks around with a phone in case his mum sends him a message. They yell: ‘Waiting to hear from your mother!’
And I’m sitting there thinking ‘Finn!’
I don’t want them to see me sobbing, so I sit with my head down,” Rachel says.
“It’s the innocence of the little ones that gets to you. When you ask them what they would like most, their faces light up and they say, ‘Juice!’ Or the big sister will say, ‘Ice-cream’. My son has a juice every day; an ice-cream sometimes twice a day in summer.”
Finn’s request from the Middle East was a little more complex – he asked for a camel. Mustafa the cuddly dromedary now sleeps with him every night.
Rachel says she's had moments of questioning whether she was even the right person to be taking on this assignment.
From Rachel’s dining table, you can see the surf surging and crashing below. But at the centre of the wooden table is an image even more striking.
A large framed photograph with the face of a girl is propped up against an orchid. She is hauntingly beautiful; dark almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones bordered by a grey and gold headscarf, innocent full pink lips. It’s obvious that she is young, but the eyes are knowing.
“That’s Hind,” Rachel says.
The photo is surrounded by delicate china teacups that once belonged to Rachel’s nana Myrtle, creating a protective arc around the girl.
Rachel and the real Hind live worlds apart – the 15-year-old Syrian girl lives in a makeshift tent with her new husband, who is a cousin. A child bride, her dreams of becoming a teacher have been crushed by a pitiless civil war that’s left millions of her fellow countrymen homeless in a foreign land.
And yet Rachel and Hind have been drawn together, forming a bond that won’t be broken by distance, turmoil or tragedy. And Rachel is determined to return to find her young friend again. “She’s such an amazing young woman,” Rachel says, her eyes welling with tears.
Rachel made a special connection with 15-year-old Hind, and hopes to go back to find her.
They met less than two years ago, on Rachel’s first visit to the Bekaa Valley. Hind is the daughter of a successful supermarket owner, who’d lived in her family’s three-storeyed home in the Syrian city of Homs, until violence erupted between government troops and rebels. Their home destroyed by rockets, Hind’s family crossed into Lebanon with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
“When we first met, she made a beeline for me,” Rachel says. “At 14, she was old beyond her years – passionate about her country and desperate to go home. She was emboldened and brave – outspoken for a Syrian girl.
“She’d started up a little school in the camp, teaching children their ABCs, and was wanting more pens. She wanted to study to become a teacher, and didn’t want to marry until her 20s. And she cried and said, ‘I miss every single grain of sand of Syria. I will go back.’”
When Rachel returned to the camp in January, she searched for Hind, but she was three months too late. With the help of her translator, World Vision aid-worker Patricia Mouamar, Rachel discovered Hind was now in another refugee camp, near Tripoli in northern Lebanon – even further from Syria. She was living with a distant relative she’d since married. Rachel spoke to Hind by phone, but she wasn’t the same “passionate young firebrand” she remembered. “She missed her family, and her country,” Rachel says. “At the end of the call, she made a sound somewhere between a scream and a shriek: ‘Wait… wait!’, and then, ‘Please don’t forget me.’ Patricia explained to me that Hind hangs on to the fact I came back to find her.”
Rachel has promised she will not only remember Hind, but she will see her again. “I want to go back, possibly later this year, and see if I can find Hind. I don’t know if I’ll be able to – there’s a lot of unrest in Tripoli now. But I think about her a lot; it breaks my heart.”
Words by: Suzanne McFadden
Photographs by: Jackie Meiring, Jo Currie, photo of Hind by Chris Sisarich

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