Alaa Karrar was born, her parents and older siblings fled war in the small East-African country of Eritrea for relative safety in Ethiopia.
“I come from a long line of amazing, fearless women,” she said.
“I remember going to my grandma’s house and over traditional Eritrean coffee they’d tell stories of how my mum was pregnant and they were going through the desert on camels and so scared that they’d get caught by rebels.”
Alaa’s dad got a university degree in Ethiopia and then landed a job as a Chief Operating Officer at a Saudi bank. The family moved to Saudi Arabia soon after, where Alaa was born.
“My older siblings were finishing up high school but couldn’t go to uni because they weren’t recognised as Saudi citizens,” she said. “And even though I was born in Saudi Arabia, I wasn’t deemed to be a citizen either!”
Her parents valued education so highly that they packed up again and moved to Canada.
“In Canada my mum went to university and got a science degree from State University of New York, all while raising five kids,” said Alaa. “There was a lot of cultural diversity, but everyone just moved with the crowd.”
“We would celebrate Canada Day and Christmas but didn’t really have our own cultural identity.”
It was a very different experience when Alaa moved to Australia.
Finding her identity
“In Australia I was the only black girl in primary school and the only black girl in high school,” she said. “I’m used to being the ‘only’, so I started to gravitate towards people who looked like me.”
“I actually found my identity here in Australia. I feel like Australia allows you to be who you want to be.”
In 2019, Alaa travelled back to East Africa for the first time.
“I grew up in the West, so to come to Ethiopia where everyone looked like me was a surreal experience!” she said. “I actually told my parents off, and said, ‘Why didn’t you take me sooner!?’”
“The cafes and the coffee culture were just beautiful. I had the best time and I just wish more people could see this side of Africa.”
During Harmony Week 2022, Alaa has been one of many at NAB sharing her cultural heritage through food.
“It’s just so great to share a bit of you,” she said. “Everyone is so proud of who they are and opportunities to bring dishes that are significant to you are much better than just baking a cupcake.”
One of the famous dishes of Eritrea is the increasingly trendy ‘injera’.
“It’s like a pancake but has a sour taste to it,” said Alaa. “It’s very fluffy and healthy (made out teff flour), and then we have curry on top of that, but we don’t call it curry we call it Tsebhi.”
Inclusivity, accessibility and opportunity
While 21 March is Harmony Day in Australia, this coincides with the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Like many, Alaa is no stranger to racism, be it subtle or overt.
“People say these experiences build resilience and strength, but I don’t need that to be resilient,” she said. “It’s great to celebrate diversity but it’s also about the actions we take beyond celebrations.”
“We need to make sure that we’re creating an inclusive environment and creating equitable accessibility and opportunity to all people, and not just eating food!”
And for Alaa, being inclusive isn’t always rocket science, such as when her Executive simply wished her a ‘Happy Ramadan’!
“That meant a lot to me as I felt that I mattered and was understood” she said. “Those are the small actions that make a big difference.”
Visit NAB’s Inclusion and Diversity page for more on inclusion and diversity at NAB.