Transcript – Episode 15: Chat with Rasha Al-Katta
David Morrison: Rasha Al-Katta is an extraordinary young woman. She arrived in Canada in the late 1990s as a refugee from Yemen, speaking only Arabic. She has since learned English and French; interned at the Canadian mission to the UN in Geneva; done a temporary duty at the Canadian mission to the UN in New York; and worked on communications, development and foreign policy files here in Ottawa. Not yet 30, Rasha’s extraordinary commitment to community and public service made her one of the youngest recipients of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. Rasha came by the GAC Files recently to share her words and her wisdom.
Rasha Al-Katta, thanks for…thanks for coming in. You are truly amazing. If I have it right, you joined the department in 2012, you’re the recipient of multiple awards since then, you have a true commitment to community service, you’ve climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, you’re one of the youngest people to have been awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for contributions to Canada, you’re affiliated with the World Economic Forum, you have a rival podcast to the GAC Files and you are not yet 30. This is…this will be extraordinary to many GAC Files listeners, and I’m tempted to just dive into your many accomplishments and your role here at the department, but let’s begin at the beginning, which is itself an extraordinary story. You came here as a child, a refugee from Yemen. Tell us…tell us how it began.
Rasha Al-Katta: First, thank you very much for welcoming me. It’s a great honour to be here. I am really grateful, and I am privileged to be here and to have…to have a conversation. So yeah, my family came in 1997 as refugees from Yemen. And, you know, most of my life I grew up in social housing. And yet, you know.
David Morrison: Here in Ottawa?
Rasha Al-Katta: Here in Ottawa, and [we] moved around the city in different social housing neighbourhoods. The eldest of six children, which is adventurous and sometimes challenging. But yeah really, you know, really grateful to have a chance to have a chapter here and to have a chance to come to a world of such opportunity.
David Morrison: What was the route from Yemen to Ottawa? Was it via UNHCR or how…tell us a little bit. Migration and refugees are topical right now.
Rasha Al-Katta: So I was six at the time, so there’s only so much I remember, but growing up and hearing the story of…from my parents of how that journey was. We…there was no Canadian embassy in Yemen, so we lived in Syria for four months, and it was thanks to help from the UNHCR and organizations that, you know, worked to support [us that] we…we came to Canada. But I remember my mother sharing how she had to sometimes wait in front of the UN building to get someone to pay attention to our file because, you know, it had been one month, two months and three months and four months, and she had three young kids at the time and no source of income, so it was challenging to…to know, wait until…until we come to Canada. So…
David Morrison: Right. And once you arrived in Canada, obviously your parents had three more kids. Were they able to find work?
Rasha Al-Katta: It’s interesting that you…that you mention this because I think that’s one of the biggest challenges. My parents had very established careers in Yemen, and they came here, but they had three kids they had to feed. So my dad started working in a pizza shop and then got a job as a Blue Line taxi driver, and that’s what he does until today because of, you need to make ends meet.
David Morrison: Sure.
Rasha Al-Katta: And you know, I really, I’m grateful for them because they had a life of self-sacrifice so I could self-actualize and…and, you know, have a career and opportunities, so…
David Morrison: So you’re the…you are the precocious oldest child of this brood of six.
Rasha Al-Katta: Yes.
David Morrison: I’m just guessing but…and you start or you were probably into school already. Talk to us about, you know, arriving from Yemen as a refugee and being thrown into the Canadian school system. You moved around, so did you change schools?
Rasha Al-Katta: So I did, I did change schools, and I, and I joke now, being the eldest of six, I think we have enough for a volleyball team, so that always comes in handy. But we did, we did move schools and move neighbourhoods, you know, just moving from kind of one social housing neighbourhood to another. But growing up, there weren’t a lot of people that looked like me, that talked like me, that had a similar upbringing and role models that I could look up to. Now I remember, you know, one instance of…in preschool, where I was, I had met somebody that I was trying to speak with, and I can only speak in Arabic. And poor children didn’t understand, here I was trying to express myself, you know, “Can I borrow your red crayon?”
David Morrison: Right.
Rasha Al-Katta: But it was something that I think really instilled in me the perspective of the value of inclusiveness. And I see it actually; I was so fortunate to be able to work with some of the Syrian refugees that…that came because of the support they got from the community. We had Arabic interpreters accompanying me to appointments. We had…most of them didn’t need to start off in social housing or shelters and were able to get excellent housing in, you know, great neighbourhoods. So seeing that…that sort of contrast, it made me really happy to see that this is what we’re…what we’re offering for…for refugees coming to Canada today.
David Morrison: Today. Different though it sounds 20…20 years ago, maybe communities weren’t as, some communities might not have been as well organized. When…when you said you felt different and look different. I’m sitting across the table from you. You’re wearing a headscarf, which I think you wear every day. I don’t…tell us when, tell us about being a Muslim woman as part of your identity, wearing the hijab, and when that started, how that has in…how that has projected your identity and the reactions to it.
Rasha Al-Katta: So it’s, I compare it to the equivalent of wearing the Canada pin, in the sense of for me what it means is it really grounds me, my faith. And it’s a—every day I put it on, every morning I put it on, I come to work—and it’s a reminder of the values that I need to uphold myself to: respect, kindness, compassion, service. And so…
David Morrison: Is it for you religious or cultural or a mix?
Rasha Al-Katta: So for me it’s religious, but it’s also cultural in the sense of, you know, my mother wears it; there’s a lot of members, you know, from the Yemeni community that wear it. But it’s, that’s not really where, I guess, I ground it predominantly. It’s mostly a chance to connect with faith and the values and to anchor me in something that can guide me in life and to be a positive contributor to Canada.
David Morrison: And you know, teenage years are fraught with questions of identity, or they can be, as you or as maybe better to say it’s…it’s a…it’s a stage where many of us try on different identities and try to figure out who we are or who we want to become. Talk to me a little bit about the aspects of your identity that we just touched upon as you went through high school years. Did you just sail through, or did you question or have questions?
Rasha Al-Katta: I think, you know, as any human being, we grow up and we are faced with certain situations or certain life opportunities that make us question our identities or challenge our identities or think through our identities. So I don’t think that, you know, anyone could say at any point in time they’ve completely figured out their identity. Especially in high school, you know, it’s a time of change and, as you say, a time of facing sort of different situations, and everyone’s trying to figure themselves out. And it was hard. I went to a high school where I think we maybe had five physical minorities in my graduating class of 300 students. So again, you know there weren’t that many role models, and there weren’t that many people to look up to.
But the great thing is, people are genuinely wonderful people and, you know, if you take the moment to connect. And sometimes people come on a good day, you know, they ask me a question. It’s a great conversation starter. And on a bad day I’m just polite and I nod and I’m like, you know, great talking with you. Moving on. So it depends kind of on the moment, but in high school, I was very lucky to find a group of friends that were wonderful and supportive and, you know, just inclusive and…and you know, a great representation of being just a good human being.
David Morrison: We won’t have time, but I’m tempted to ask about your…your siblings; you strike me as uniquely self-assured and confident in who you are and what your place is in the world. I wonder if, which is just to say it’s not easy to stick out for…for…for many people, many of us. And you’ve…you’ve chosen and seem quite confident in your choices, which…which is obviously wonderful.
Rasha Al-Katta: Thank you, it’s high praise coming from you. So I really appreciate it, thank you.
David Morrison: But let’s…let’s move on to how you connected high school to college or university and then to the department. Somewhere along the way, you had a, an internship with our mission in Geneva.
Rasha Al-Katta: Yeah. So it’s funny because I actually started off in undergrad; I did my first year in social work. So I had no idea about this field of international relations or international development or foreign policy or any of that. I was focused on, you know, trying to get into a field where I could make a difference, where I could focus on the we. And it wasn’t until I had a friend talk to me about this field called international development, and I looked up the coursework, and I read the courses, and I looked at the syllabi, emailed professors being, can you send me the course list and the reading list I want to…I want to get a sense of what this is. And I fell in love; I took a leap of faith. I applied, I had to transfer, so I had to transfer programs in universities, and I was fortunate enough that the program had co-op.
David Morrison: And you are at the University of Ottawa?
Rasha Al-Katta: So I was at Carleton, and I moved to the University of Ottawa. And I was fortunate because there was a co-op program, and I honestly am such a strong supporter of it because it really opened the way. I had no idea about Global Affairs Canada. I had no idea what the types of work that someone could work on, and it wasn’t until I had my first co-op experience here in 2012 that I fell in love and…
David Morrison: What it…where was it? What did you do?
Rasha Al-Katta: So it was with the development policy institutions division, then known as MEP. And it was, I had an excellent…excellent supervisor and great mentors.
David Morrison: So that was before the evalua…the amalgamation?
Rasha Al-Katta: Yes, it was before, it was before amalgamation, so it was on the DFATD side. But it was, you know, a real chance to get a sense of the work that was being done here, and I was only supposed to stay there for four months; I extended it to…by another four months. I stayed there for eight months, and then I came back for another four months. So I spent a year with that team and since then have moved around in the department and gotten a chance to get a flavour of the work we do on a daily basis.
David Morrison: The internship in…in Geneva, was that part of co-op or you lined it up on your own?
Rasha Al-Katta: So I was already going to Geneva for my last semester of undergrad, and I figured it’d be a great chance to get some experience working in a multilateral setting. And what better place than Canada’s, you know, mission to the UN. So I was just chatting with my supervisor at the time, and she said, “Hey, I know some people there; I’ll forward your resume, and we’ll see if there’s openings.” And then I was like, “Okay, that’s—thank you.” But also that’s really, really kind and a great way to sort of, you know, see opportunities that might not necessarily be broadcasted or promoted not widely. And so I got an internship, and it was unpaid, but I got an internship there working part [time].
David Morrison: Yeah, there’s a theme that runs through these internships.
Rasha Al-Katta: There’s a little bit of a theme and that’s, you know, [the] plight of, if we can offer support for interns, I’m all behind that. But so [it] was unpaid, and I got the chance to work there part time. So I was doing coursework for my last semester of undergrad and then interning on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. And it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I did have to eat muesli and carrots every day due to budget constraints. But you know the wealth of knowledge I got made up for that.
David Morrison: And so then you…you told me earlier that you’ve worked in the department in a range of capacities and on probably every type of contract we offer. You landed the much-coveted indeterminate contract in 2016, I think, when you won an EC-4 competition. How did that change your outlook on…on this place, on your career trajectory? I have talked to a number of millennials about their aspirations, how they deal with the uncertainty around the recent reality in this department that we’re unable to offer longer term contracts. So…so you crossed that threshold. Talk…talk to us about what that felt like and how it has changed your plans for your career, if it has.
Rasha Al-Katta: It’s funny because I have, indeed; I feel like I’ve worked off every contract from FSWEPs to casuals to terms to co-op. So if anyone has any questions, I’m always free and happy to answer them. But it wasn’t until an EC-4 competition opened up by chance [in] 2015 that I thought, OK, you know, maybe there’s an opportunity here to really have a long-term career because we do hear that it is really challenging to get indeterminate here and to, you know, look somewhere else. But I always knew this was a place that I loved working, and even moving contract to contract it was uncertain. But so is the world, so is the field that we work in, so is the file. So I feel people are sometimes drawn to this department because of that aspect of adventure and uncertainty.
But it’s…it’s, I’m grateful that I have this indeterminate now because I can think more long term and I…I have, you know, the financial stability that my parents never had. And they’re so grateful, and I’m so grateful, and at the same time I’m also cognizant of the fact that we do need to make more of an effort to keep people here on long term because of life as well. And to help them stabilize their careers and to look at how they can make the greatest contribution instead of searching from job to job, looking at impact to impact. And so flipping that mindset, you do need a little bit of security. So I feel that sort of, that’s really where my, you know, perspective has truly changed, is now I’m looking at how can I have the most added value. What are the tools that I need in my tool kit? What are the blind spots that I still have when I’m working in this field instead of who is hiring? I need to pay bills. Moving on, so it’s…
David Morrison: What’s the next one?
Rasha Al-Katta: It’s challenging, but it’s—I am really grateful.
David Morrison: So that’s a good…good segue to…to some questions I want to ask about your, you have multiple identities—visible minority, you’re a woman, but you’re also a millennial. And I was saying recently that at the senior management level, we’re forever saying, “Oh, what would the millennials think about that?” So…so just talk to us a little bit about your perspective as a young person in this department and, you know, the rebut [to] the millennial caricature of entitled snowflakes. Tell us what you really like.
Rasha Al-Katta: So I think that there’s a real diversity in millennial perspective. But what I can tell you are the millennials I know are passionate and they’re caring and they want to make contributions and they want to change and challenge the way things have always been done for a focus on the better. Not challenging for the sake of challenging, but you know, how can we do this better. So they like to focus on the why, and they like to challenge the how, so that we can make the greatest impact on the what. And those are the millennials that I know of.
So being, you know, the young person in the public service, I think the one thing that I’ve been grateful for, and I would encourage those in roles of managers or supervisors to do, is to take a young person under their wing, to trust them with challenging files, to give them the opportunity to…to be at the forefront of some of the hardest policy issues and files that are not necessarily, would not necessarily come to someone maybe at that junior level. And those have been some of the most incredible opportunities that I’ve been grateful to have.
But also to bring them into meetings. And I see this now more than I did in the past, and I think it’s…it’s a move in the right direction. I know now the clerk has introduced the “take me with you” initiative, which is essentially senior managers bringing young people, because talking to current managers, a lot of them told me, you know, the first time I learned how to brief the ministers was when I was briefing the minister. How wonderful would it have been to have that opportunity in advance, to get that mentorship, to see how it’s done. So when they then needed to do that task, they knew how to, you know, mitigate and how to move around it.
David Morrison: I mean, it is absolutely true that the very best development opportunities are watching others in action. You know we always think that we’re too prone to think that training means going on a course or sitting in a classroom, where as one really learns from sitting on the edge of a meeting room and watching someone brief a minister or watching a committee in action, and it is…it is something that I think has…has changed in the sense of we have observers at all of the governance committees. I think you can just contact the Corporate Secretariat or your manager to figure out how to get included. We are mindful as senior managers that…that’s how you really learn.
You—in…in jumping around in the department or at least on different contracts—are…are you a dev person, are you a foreign policy person, are you a trade person, or have you done all of those things?
Rasha Al-Katta: So I’ve been fortunate to get a good flavour. So I’ve worked in comms, I’ve worked on the Pan Am Games, I’ve worked in multilateral, I’ve worked in development, I’ve worked in foreign policy. So I think I’m a GAC person. I think I…I hope to be, I’m still missing a bit of the trade side, but I hope to get that because it honestly clears up the blind spots, and when you’re working on files, you need to see at the end of the day we’re here to serve Canadians, we’re here to, you know, advance Canada’s priorities, and we have to work in all three. And I hope to, you know, strengthen my muscles and in all of, [all] three of them, so that I can have the most added value at the end of the day.
David Morrison: So in thinking a little bit about whether there is frankly any difference between the millennials and the rest of us, I mean there’s a…there’s a guy around town that you’ve probably seen in action who makes presentations at conferences, and he’s speaking on the millennials, and he starts by reading a fairly lengthy thing about how they’re so different. It turns out he’s reading from a Time magazine cover story of the early 1970s. And the lesson being that all generations think the youngest generation is, you know, entitled and doesn’t want to work hard and doesn’t want to pay their dues and so on.
But I do actually personally think that they’re…it’s just different. If you grew up with the internet, the world is flatter. People tend to have travelled more, they tend to have friends all over the world. They tend to think it’s normal to FaceTime rather than use the telephone, you know, so…so I do think there’s a difference in outlook. And the proposition I’d like to test is whether that difference in outlook extends to just looking at things holistically. You’re the, not the first person to come through here from a junior level who’s already had experience in many of the business lines of this department. You mentioned communications, you mentioned development, you mentioned foreign policy and that you’d like to branch out into trade. In previous years, you kind of got stamped as soon as you walked in, and you were a trade commissioner or you were a FPDS officer. Is my hypothesis correct that millennials tend to see the world more holistically and less in silos?
Rasha Al-Katta: I think that’s a really great hypothesis because in today’s day and age, ignorance can no longer be an excuse. You know you can’t say I didn’t know…
David Morrison: I don’t know because it’s all there if you search for it.
Rasha Al-Katta: It’s all there, and it’s the responsibility of everyone and all of us to know what’s happening out there in the world. Now more than ever we have access to that. And it’s also, you know, being exposed to so much of that, of what’s happening in the world, you recognize that the world’s problems are not siloed. And they’re complicated.
David Morrison: Right. And that’s…that’s the…that’s the real thing, right? If you are— I always default to Colombia—but if you’re the Canadian ambassador in Colombia, you don’t have foreign policy problems, trade problems, development problems; you just have your relationship and you have tools that you can deploy to try to advance Canadian interests. And so I think, when we’re at the very top of our game institutionally, we see things holistically. But, I think, in the future our leaders are going to have to be leaders who also see things holistically rather [than] from the perspective of any one functional group in the department.
Rasha Al-Katta: It needs to come down through the whole department even at the junior level or higher up. I think it’s our shared responsibility to have those views.
David Morrison: I mean the counterargument has to do with the need for specialists. And in today’s world, arguably there’s never been a greater need for specialists, but…but getting the balance right in…throughout the workforce, I think, is that…is the trick. Let’s shift to yet another part of your identity, which is this extraordinary commitment to community service. You mentioned in an offhand comment you work with Syrian refugees, but there’s been a much longer tradition. Talk to us about where that comes from.
Rasha Al-Katta: So I think that I’ve been grateful just by, you know, virtue of being in Canada and being a Canadian and coming from a world that, you know, frankly always ranked poorly in development charts. There weren’t necessarily that many opportunities. And now [that] I’m here in this wonderful country, there’s an abundance of resources and opportunities, and what privilege I’m in, you know, and what responsibility I have to give back and to make a contribution and to serve. And I grew up seeing, you know, life in [a] social housing neighbourhood and seeing those not necessarily with maybe as much opportunity. And I think it’s something that I’ve always just grown up with, family values of giving back and serving and, you know, focusing on the we and not being so focused necessarily with consuming, consuming, consuming but contributing and giving back and switching that mindset. And as a result, honestly, it’s…it’s a feeling of gratitude of being able to give back and to try to make even the smallest level of impact.
David Morrison: Is there a particular issue in your community service that you…I mean, there’s a little bit of modesty, which is definitely not false going on here. Rasha’s name is engraved in, on Ottawa City Hall’s Wall of Inspiration. She’s won a variety of awards for her community service work. What is the…is it…do you have a particular issue you focus on?
Rasha Al-Katta: So it started off really focusing on youth issues. Because when I got involved in community service and I even understood the word, it was 40 hours of community service you needed to get, to graduate high school.
David Morrison: As part of high school, ya.
Rasha Al-Katta: As part of high school you needed to get it. And then I became, so to speak, a volunteer junky. And I fell in love and I saw, you know, the real opportunity to make a difference. And you don’t need anything; you just need to show up and be like, how can I help? And there you go. So it’s really started with youth engagement issues and getting young people engaged. And then I got involved in the board of the social housing neighbourhood where I grew up in and trying to change, you know, broader policies to increase housing and to help those that necessarily, you know, were getting involved, into trouble, to get reintegrated into the community and to be set on a…on a…a much more constructive path.
And then when the Syrian refugees came in I—there was a need for those who spoke Arabic—so [I] raised my hand and I volunteered and I helped out. And now I’m, you know, another cause that really, I guess, breaks my heart is the issue of domestic violence and those who, you know, women and children who flee their homes from violence, and I’m now really fortunate to serve on the board to help out in a way that I can. So it’s…it’s…different chapters of my life have introduced me to different issues that have broken my heart, and my instinct has been to lean in to them and to try to, you know, raise my hand and say, “What can I do?”
David Morrison: So without embarrassing you unduly, talk to me about what your parents think of their oldest child.
Rasha Al-Katta: It’s really funny because I think they still don’t understand what I do for a living. So they are like, “Is this, you know, government okay? Great, but, you know, what is policy work? What is this?” So I don’t…I don’t know if they’ve necessarily quite wrapped their heads around [it], but I think they’re just busy focusing on six children. They don’t necessarily get a chance to…to step back, but they keep me grounded, and they keep me focused on what matters. You know your impact, your contribution and not raising the white flag of it’s done. You know, I’m done here to everything that you do, to do it with your full heart, and to try to have that added value and to not focus so much on yourself and your ego, but what your contribution can be and what’s the legacy you’re going to leave here.
And so that’s…that’s the conversation I have; [they] are always sort of challenging me of the, you know, where’s the contribution that you’re making? How are you making a difference? Not necessarily, you know, what’s the title or what’s that, but what’s your impact? And so I think that’s what they…they always hold me accountable to. But at the same time, I don’t know if they’ve necessarily had their head[s] wrapped around my…my career choices necessarily.
David Morrison: Well, those are inspiring words, and I can tell you as a father myself that they’re very proud.
Rasha Al-Katta: Thank you.
David Morrison: So let’s, before we both tear up, let’s…let’s wind it up there. But this has been just wonderful, Rasha. And your story from Yemen to 125 Sussex and who knows where from here is inspiring and has enriched all of us. Thank you.
Rasha Al-Katta: Thank you so much.
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