Like many people last year, journalist Sarah Abo found herself having to master a brand new skill in the face of the pandemic. “I’d be walking down the street trying to exaggerate my smile with my eyes,” the Melbourne-based reporter recalls of her new-found talent for facial gymnastics due to mandatory mask-wearing. “It was the only way of communicating, so I really tried, as it’s such an important part of the human condition to interact with each other.”
The value of this connection only became more apparent to Sarah when restrictions were lifted after Victoria’s second wave. “That first night, we got a booking at the local pub straight away. It was such a buzz, as everyone was so happy to be out. We were still in masks but when you were in a restaurant, you could take it off. It sounds silly but seeing other people’s faces again after so long was beautiful. It was so lovely to have that connection back again.”
The genuine warmth in Sarah’s voice is what’s most striking when first speaking with her – and, if honest, almost unexpected. As 60 Minutes’ newest recruit, joining the team two years ago at the age of 33, it could be assumed she’d be a hard-nosed journo with no time for sentimentality.
After all, this is someone who, just months into her new role, was hitting former British prime minister Tony Blair with tough questions (“Has the UK become a bit of laughing stock in the eyes of the world?“) and asking Malaysia’s then PM, Mahathir Mohamad, what he thought had really happened to missing flight MH370.
But regular viewers of the long-running current affairs show would be familiar with Sarah’s sensitivity and ability to connect with her subjects. She was brought to tears interviewing one of the 13 Australian women who was invasively strip-searched at Qatar’s Doha airport last October, and was equally moved as survivors of the White Island volcano eruption in New Zealand that killed 22 people in late 2019 shared their harrowing stories.
To uncover the source of Sarah’s delicate balance of steely resolve yet comforting manner, you only need to look at her remarkable start to life. In 1990, a wide-eyed four-year-old arrived in Australia from Damascus, Syria, with her mother, Samia, her father, Fouad, and two younger sisters, Yara and Shaza.
“If anyone was to put themselves in the position that my parents were in, to actually uproot your family from one side of the world to the other … I just can’t even imagine doing that,” says Sarah, who married her partner, Cyrus Moran, in late 2012.
“But we would never consider that because we are so lucky to live in a country like Australia. We don’t need to look beyond our own borders because it’s such a beautiful country and we have such freedom, liberty and democracy.”
The Abo family had no relatives in Australia, and only spoke limited English, so Sarah describes the move as a “gamble”. Settling in Melbourne, the first few months were challenging.
“It was so difficult for them to find their feet,” she says. “We were floating around between the homes of family friends who were generous enough to take us in. We were sleeping all together in one of the bedrooms, and they were in another bedroom all together.” While Sarah admits it wouldn’t have been easy, she says “it’s that typical migrant story of support and helping each other get a leg up”.
Her parents eventually found work – her mother at La Trobe University, and her father at the Environment Protection Authority. Within time, they could afford their own home in suburban Greensborough. “I can’t look at my parents’ story and not be motivated and inspired by it,” says Sarah, her voice slightly breaking with pride. “Nothing is difficult compared to what they did, that’s how I see it. There is no excuse not to succeed, there is no excuse not to chase a dream. It sounds like a cliché but Mum and Dad are proof of what can be achieved here by setting your heart and mind to it.”
“There is no excuse not to chase a dream. It sounds like a cliché but Mum and Dad are proof of what can be achieved here by setting your heart and mind to it.”
Growing up in a predominantly white neighbourhood, Sarah recalls not meeting another Syrian during her primary school years. And while there weren’t many migrants in the area, she never felt discriminated against but did feel a special connection to the Italian, Greek and Asian kids she knew.
“Any feelings I had I brought upon myself,” she reflects. “When I looked around, growing up, I wanted to be a bit more like the other kids: to have blonde hair and blue eyes. But obviously you grow into your identity and accept it. In the end, it is who you are.“
After finishing school, Sarah studied journalism at Monash University and always saw her future in feature writing. “I was the yearbook editor at uni; what a geek!” she says, laughing. But after finishing her undergraduate degree, she went on an overseas holiday with a friend for three months, a trip that was a transformative time for Sarah.
“Travelling through numerous foreign countries where you don’t know anyone or your surroundings and you have to speak to people and get to know them and their stories …” she says. “If it wasn’t for that trip, I don’t know if I would have had the confidence really to enter broadcast journalism.”
A short stint doing work-experience for Network Ten led to work in its Adelaide newsroom before Sarah made the move back to Melbourne. In 2013, she joined SBS, working at World News and Dateline and covering major events including the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, the 2016 US presidential election, the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and the refugee crisis in Lebanon, Turkey and Greece. Then at the start of 2019, she joined Nine and the team at 60 Minutes.
“If they can switch on the TV and see someone who looks like them and who they can relate to, that’s an achievement. That’s what we’re striving for.”
“I doubt there would be a journalist in Australia who wouldn’t aspire to be on a program like 60 Minutes,” she says. “It’s such a rare opportunity that you don’t necessarily think will happen. What an incredible place to work! It wasn’t until I joined that I realised it opens so many doors. Within three months of starting I was sitting opposite Tony Blair. That’s when you pinch yourself and go, ‘This is happening.’ ”
As a young, Syrian-born woman working on a popular current affairs show, Sarah is proud to represent the diverse audience the program attracts.
“I get messages from the public saying they feel a sense of joy or relief that they can watch the TV and see someone who looks like them,” she says. “If they can switch on the TV and see someone who looks like them and who they can relate to, that’s an achievement. That’s what we’re striving for.”
And it’s something that is close to home for the Abo family. “Sunday night 60 Minutes was appointment viewing for us growing up,” Sarah recalls. “For my mum and dad, as migrants, it was their window to the world. It was an opportunity to show Australians what was happening across the country and in places they would never be able to go to themselves.“
Thirty years after Samia and Fouad made that monumental move across the globe to give their daughters better opportunities, it’s hard to comprehend how they must feel now, watching their eldest appear alongside the iconic ticking clock on Sunday nights. Are they beyond proud? Sarah pauses. “We’re so proud of them.”
60 Minutes airs 8.45pm Sundays on Nine.
Photograph by GK Photography. Styling by Melissa Boyle. Hair and make-up by Bec Shannon.
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Genevieve Quigley is the associate editor of Sunday Life.