NZ Woman's Weekly

Behind enemy lines

He’s one of New Zealand’s top photographers; she’s one of the country’s most respected news journalists. So when Newstalk ZB presenter and former Firstline frontwoman Rachel Smalley was asked by World Vision to visit Lebanon and Jordan to help highlight the Syrian refugee crisis, her response was instant.

“I told them to call Chris Sisarich,’ says Rachel, who met him last July at an exhibition, where he was showcasing images from a trip to Mali and Niger. “It was just before I started on ZB, and we were asked to go at really short notice so I didn’t think he’d do it, but he dropped everything.”

Rachel and Chris are both married with children. Rachel to freelance cameraman Luc Johnson, with a little boy Finn (4); and Chris to Arlene, with two girls, Jamie (8) and Maddie (6). So visiting the refugee sites, which Chris describes as, “like concentration camps”, was heartbreaking.

Children as young as four are selling food vouchers to keep a roof over their heads – this girl lives in a garage in Lebanon, where the rent is an exhorbitant $250 per week.

“Talking to kids the same age as your own, who have seen things no child should ever see – it’s not surprising that violence ends up perpetuating. All these kids want is to go home to Syria and for the fighting to end, but every day they are told no, this is their life,” Chris says sadly.

He recalls a conversation with one little boy, who watched his neighbours being blown up as they drove away from their house.

It’s just one of several stories Rachel and Chris have heard, including the tale of the family of five kids whose father’s leg was blown off while he was sitting in his lounge.

A makeshift tented settlement. The satellite dishes are their only contact with the outside world. “Every day they tune in to find out if the war in Syria is over,” explains Chris.

“His daughter is scared of him now because of how he looks,” explains Rachel.

As Chris and Rachel recall what they saw on their five-day trip last month, it’s clear that they’re both passionate about trying to help Syrians in crisis – most of whom were leading ordinary, middle-class lives before civil war broke out in April 2011. Many were forced to flee their homes with whatever they could carry, and cross borders into surrounding countries. They now have no school, and teenagers as young as 14 are trying to teach little ones the basics.

“It really knocks me around, seeing these people’s lives so utterly destroyed,” says Rachel. “The kids are just like ours. While we are here dragging them out of bed to get them to school, all these kids want is the chance to get an education again. They haven’t had any for two-and-a-half years.”

Rachel was embarrassed when people asked her about the news in New Zealand.  “While they were worrying about whether they’d ever see their home again, our headline that week was about how much snapper we’re allowed to catch.”

Without a doubt, Rachel and Chris have been touched by what they’ve seen. But having had experience of other humanitarian crises, they know that the best way to cope with it is with humour – something both these two have in spades.

“Is that it?” grins Chris, as Rachel emerges fully made-up for her Weekly photoshoot.

“Yeah – how are you doing your hair?” retorts Rachel.

The friendly banter rarely stops, with Rachel complaining that although he was easy to travel with, Chris is a “typical creative”, constantly wandering off to take photos without her.

Meanwhile, Chris accuses Rachel of being a “very bad photographer”.

“It actually broke my heart a bit,” Rachel says. “I fancied myself as being quite good.”

“Well, it helps if you actually focus the camera…” explains Chris with mock-seriousness.

A new refugee camp for 120,000 Syrians. Each toilet block is to be shared by five families. “From a distance this looks like a graveyard,” says Chris.

While the pair tried to smile, the little faces often reminded them of the children waiting back home for them.

“I’d told Finn, I was going to the Middle East, which in his head became one word –Mileast – and he said it sounded cool and he’d like to have his next party there,” smiles Rachel, who individually wrapped and labelled little presents for Finn to open while she was away.

“Typical – so organised,” teases Chris, who grows misty-eyed when he reveals that on opening his bag in Lebanon, he found a hand-written note from his girls. “I show them where I’m going on a globe before I leave, so they have a visual understanding of where I am. They don’t know the detail of what’s going on in those countries – but I don’t think many Kiwis do, to be honest.”

Rachel sums it up. “It basically comes down to this – do you identify yourself as being a New Zealander, or someone who lives on this planet? As the latter, I think we have to do something to help people in these situations through no fault of their own.”

Photos: Todd Eyre • Styling: Natasha Guttenbeil • Hair and make-up: Kate Smith

Issue 1541

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