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What It’s Really Like to Work in Counter-Terrorism

In our 9–5 series, we ask boss babes what a day in their work lives entails. This week, Canada’s Deputy Director of Counter-Terrorism Policy, Sumita Dixit, gives us a glimpse into her daily grind

work in counter terrorism

Sumita Dixit, Canada’s Deputy Director of Counter-Terrorism Policy

Age: 39

Length of time at current gig: 13 years

Education: Bachelor of Journalism from Carleton University and a Masters in Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution from the University of Bradford

Languages spoken: English, French, Arabic and a little bit of Hindi.

What do you do? I work with a team to define the strategy for how Canada engages on the international stage for counter-terrorism policy, whether that’s in the UN or within the G7 or the global counter-terrorism forum. There’s an international community of countries that are trying to solve these problems and some of us naturally agree on the best way to do that, and others have a different opinion. Part of my job is asking things like: What does Canada have to offer in this case? What’s the Canadian approach to solving those problems? Then making recommendations to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stéphane Dion.

How did you get into this field? I did my degree in journalism, but I felt a bit removed from things. Rather than being an observer, I wanted to touch the ground.

Where have you been posted? I was in Beirut, Lebanon for two years. My background is in human affairs, so I did quite a few deployments to disaster-affected areas such as Burma after Tropical Cyclone Nargis and Haiti after the country experienced four hurricanes in 2008. My job was to find out if and how Canada could help.

How is your role different when you are posted abroad? When I’m abroad or in one of our embassies, a big part of my job is being the Canadian presence, whether it’s at a workshop or public affairs event, and making sure that Canada has a face at the table for the discussions that are happening.

What do you like about working abroad? When I was posted in Beirut, I travelled to camps and was able to talk to refugees without the filter of news media, or however else you usually hear their stories. I met a Syrian woman who fled Homs, a city that’s been completely destroyed. She had no home to go back to and had brought her five kids to Lebanon. Her husband stayed behind to try and keep the business going, and they don’t know whether he is alive or dead, and she has to find a way to keep going. Making a connection person-to-person is one of those things that keeps you going in this type of work.

How do you stay safe when you’re in high-risk zones abroad? The first year I was living in Lebanon, there were a number of bomb attacks in Beirut. A big part of managing those risks—especially moving around with my family and my kids—is understanding as much as I can about the security and politics of the country I’m living in. A lot of the bombing was motivated by the politics of what was happening in Syria. So there were certain neighbourhoods that we knew were more targeted than others, and we were told to always bear that in mind when we moved around. Other neighbourhoods and the border areas were completely restricted to us. But I actually felt quite comfortable while I was in Beirut; it was a level of risk I was willing to manage.

How has terrorism evolved in recent years? What we’re seeing is that when it comes to Canada’s security, it doesn’t start and stop at the borders. We’ve been hearing for a long time that we’re more interconnected than ever, and I think it’s really sinking in that what happens halfway around the world can really affect Canada and Canadians. I think that’s a real motivator behind why Canada considers these issues a very high priority.

Has working in this field changed how you see the world? I have a greater awareness of—for lack of a better term—the “evils” in the world. But on the flip side, I also see a lot of the amazing work and some of the courage people have in the face of adversity, whether it’s fighting oppression, finding a way to survive in the middle of a war or helping people in need after a disaster. There are a lot of wonderful things in humanity to be seen if you just look for them.

Who do you admire in your field and why? I feel inspired by my friends and colleagues. It’s not always easy, especially for women with kids and family, to have this nomadic lifestyle where you pick everybody up and move somewhere else. I know women who have had to make really difficult choices about leaving their kids for a period of time to do the work they love. I admire that woman who fled from Homs because she made a really tough choice. She has no certainty about what the future holds, but she’s doing whatever has to do to give her kids a future. That woman is as deserving of my respect as the highest ranking official in the United Nations.

If someone wanted to work in this field, what traits do they need? I think you have to be open-minded because when you do international work, especially diplomacy, one of the critical factors is being able to understand the perspective of the person who is sitting across the table.

How do you unwind? It’s great to see my kids’ faces. These are really difficult issues and if you’re somebody who’s thinking about what’s happening in the world, you have to find a way to disconnect from those issues and remember how lucky you are at the end of it all.

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