Warzones, love and family – all in a day’s work

Now on the academic trail, Helen Vatsikopoulos talks to Helen Velissaris about her career, her family and the new book on the horizon

When you make a living telling stories, sometimes the most interesting ones can be hiding right in front of you. That’s how Walkley award winning journalist, Helen Vatsikopoulos, feels about her latest venture.
The ABC and SBS television reporter and presenter has popped her academic hat on and embarked on a long journey to a PhD and a book.
“To me, academia was the perfect thing for this part of my life, because I haven’t said no to journalism, I still have connections… but I’ll get to choose the stories that I do,” Vatsikopoulos told Neos Kosmos.
Her choice this time is to follow her parents’ story during the Greek Civil War from 1946-1949. During that time, Greece suffered more casualties than in the Second World War. More than 1 million people were displaced and thousands of children were removed from their homes.
The horrors of war are definitely not foreign to Vatsikopoulos. During her time as a journalist, she has covered wars, assassinations, genocides and bombings, making sure the stories that many governments try to silence are broadcast to TV screens everywhere.
That is why she feels very passionately about drawing a light on the Greek Civil War.
“Everyone knows about the Spanish Civil War… and everyone knows about the American Civil War, but not a lot of people know about the Greek Civil War,” she explains.
Starting with her family’s story as a reference, the war has become much more than just history to Vatsikopoulos.
“When the Civil War ended, the communists took about 28,000 children. [Of those] 28,000 children, my father was one of them.
“And the children that were left were taken by the Queen of Greece and put into… a paedopolis [government camp]. My mother was one of those,” she says.
Getting her parents to open up about their experiences was not an easy task. Like many who have suffered during a war, retelling their story re-opened old wounds.
Living through the aftermath of a world war and directly affected by the accompanying Civil War, the harrowing details were easier to suppress.
Surprisingly, they found an outlet via Vatsikopoulos’ husband, ABC foreign correspondent Mark Corcoran.
“It’s through Mark that my parents opened up about the past. They absolutely adore Mark and he absolutely adores them,” Vatsikopoulos told Neos Kosmos.
Corcoran and Vatsikopoulos met at the Sydney offices of SBS. From the start, Mark was thrown into the welcoming arms of a huge Greek family. They were so eager to meet him, that the minute he arrived at the airport, there was a whole welcome party full of Vatsikopoulos’ extended family waving enthusiastically at him.
The fact that he wasn’t Greek seemed to make them love him more, and maybe why they felt comfortable to open up to him.
Vatsikopoulos’ parents, Peter and Vicki, decided to migrate to Australia in 1965 from Florina, in Northern Greece when Vatsikopoulos was five. It was an easy decision, when they thought of the opportunities it would give their only child.
“Greece was devastated economically and politically. A lot of people saw the opportunities in Australia, and we came here for a better life.”
The ‘lucky country’ was a good fit for the family, but Vatsikopoulos remembers a solitary childhood. Without any siblings or extended family, and her parents working long hours, the house would be empty most of the time.
“I’d wake up in the morning and there would be no one home. I had a key around my neck and my parents would go to work,” she says.
That’s where she found company in books.
Her long stints in the library and her dream of getting a full set of the World Book Encyclopaedias (a time when the ‘internet’ was a foreign word) definitely shaped the person she is today.
At an early age, Vatsikopoulos had a curiosity and thirst for the truth. Her sights were always on international matters, which definitely propelled her into a niche career in TV journalism, as she says she was “always curious about world events and what was happening”.
She easily left the comforts of home to cover the big stories around the world. She was in the thick of things in the Rwandan Genocide and front row at the collapse of the Berlin Wall (a piece of the wall sits in the study of her Sydney home). These personal snapshots of time are why Vatsikopoulos will always keep one foot in the journalism door.
“The beauty of this job is that we are the first eyewitnesses to history.”
During her career, she’s won countless awards including the UN of Australia Media Peace Prize twice and a Walkley for her work in the former USSR.
But nothing was more challenging than looking after her two young children and continuing to report. The high pressure lifestyle and the fact that her husband was away on assignment for weeks on end definitely left a toll.
“My husband was working as a correspondent, I was working. I just thought… this sort of watching the clock, getting in the car and racing across town to pick [the kids] up… it’s not good for me and definitely not good for them.”
Again, the help from her parents was invaluable. Not just for her but for her husband.
As her parents would fly up to Sydney to help out, Mark was over in Iraq, covering the American occupation after September 11.
“Mark always says, I was able to have all those years of covering the world because of Peter and Vicki.”
That’s why Vatsikopoulos’ transition to the academic world came easy.
In between lecturing TV Journalism and completing her PhD at The University of Technology Sydney, she now has time to hand pick her own stories and assignments and spends more time researching – a luxury in the journalism world.
“It gives you a lot of time to dig deep. In journalism, you’re following deadlines,” she says, “a new story a day.”
New projects are definitely piling up on Vatsikopoulos’ plate. She’s even embarking on something very different to her foreign correspondent years; a documentary on Frank Gehry’s new Sydney building which should be completed in two years.
And with her book only in its infancy, she is hoping to return to Greece soon and to collect more stories like her parents’.
It seems like taking a break isn’t in her vocabulary.
If you have stories of the Greek Civil War in the Prespa /Florina region or being in the Queen’s paedopolis, email helen@neoskosmos.com.au and your details will be forwarded to Helen Vatsikopoulos.