Time for Red Deer to reach out

The shooting of Oscar Salazar should be a wakeup call for Red Deer to reach out to its young immigrants before their world has a chance to go sideways, says his friend, who is also an immigrant.

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The shooting of Oscar Salazar should be a wakeup call for Red Deer to reach out to its young immigrants before their world has a chance to go sideways, says his friend, who is also an immigrant.

Salazar, 22, died, and an unidentified 17-year-old youth was injured in a shooting in Highland Green on Aug. 2.

At the time of his death, Salazar had three charges before the courts, including assault, uttering threats and breaching conditions of a previous court order.

His friend, who was convicted of drug trafficking and has since cleaned up his life, said Salazar was a happy, goofy kid growing up. Then he lost his way.

Born in Bogota, Colombia, Salazar was in Grade 5 when his family moved to Red Deer.

“I don’t want Oscar’s life to be for nothing. We can give his example to other young kids growing up,” said his friend, who has left drugs behind and did not want his name used.

“I don’t know what kind of wrong stuff he was in,” said his friend, who added none of the people showing off at the impromptu memorial near the location of the shooting were at his funeral on Monday, which was attended by many members of Salazar’s family and close friends.

Young immigrants need to hear the experiences of other immigrants who have been involved in drugs, he said.

“Why can’t we create a program in elementary or junior high and build their foundation right there? Show them some real life examples.”

When Salazar’s friend moved to Red Deer in the late 1990s, he was still learning English and there was nobody in the community from his South Asian country he could turn to, or at school.

“Nobody talked to me for two years. I had no friends. Nobody.

“You don’t know the language. You don’t know the culture. It takes a lot to get out there and know people.”

He started using marijuana to fit in at high school and was labelled a gangster.

“Sounds good. I’ll roll with that,” he said about his former reputation. “At least somebody’s talking to me, somebody’s hanging out with me.”

He continued using drugs and started selling them. Eventually, he was convicted of drug trafficking and got a six-month jail sentence.

He credits the police and the judge who put him behind bars for saving his life.

“If it was not for them, my life wouldn’t have changed because I didn’t know the consequences.”

The Central Alberta Diversity Association in Red Deer wants to do more to help young immigrants by looking at the challenges and pressures they experience and help develop leadership skills.

Richard Banville, association executive director, said according to a 2010 poll for the Association for Canadian Studies and the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, young people are hearing and seeing more racism than adults.

The association’s new program — Anti-Discrimination Empowerment Peer Training — will start in September searching for participants, age 15 to 25, to meet and hear from experts as well as bringing their own experiences to the table. They will work to develop inclusive activities.

Jan Underwood, public awareness co-ordinator at Central Alberta Refugee Effort (CARE), gives anti-bullying lectures in schools and takes people of different cultures regularly to class so they can tell their story to students.

“Definitely there is still bullying. Sometimes it is racist based,” Underwood said.

“Kids are just picked on because they can’t understand them or they look different, or just because their skin colour is different, which you would hope would not happen these days.”

Underwood said immigrant kids want to fit in and some are lured into drugs because of the money to be made.

“Maybe some kids see what other kids have. We are a very affluent province and a lot of kids have a lot. Maybe something is not fulfilling in their life and they’re looking for that extra something. It’s the same with Canadian kids, too.”

Some immigrant students go on to excel in school, but there has also been a high dropout rate for that population.

Underwood said some schools don’t have enough trained teachers for English as a Second Language classes for children struggling with a new language. St. Patrick’s Community School and Fairview Elementary School have higher percentages of immigrants so there is more accommodation at those schools for different cultures.

St. Patrick’s vice-principal Cathy Cameron said her school has focused on ESL students for years. Currently 42 per cent of its 620 students are immigrants.

“At any time you can walk into a classroom and it can be 65 or 70 per cent ESL. It’s who we are. We celebrate that every opportunity we can,” said Cameron, who is also the ESL co-ordinator for the school division.

About four years ago when the school was bursting at the seams, the division started providing ESL in all its schools so children can attend their neighbourhood school.

Red Deer Catholic has an ESL team made up of about 25 teachers and support staff, but considers all of its teachers ESL instructors.

“What we’re finding is by and large our families want to be in their neighbourhoods. They want to have their children playing with children who go to the same school. They want to have less time on a bus. The neighbourhood school concept has really caught on.”

St. Patrick’s ambassador program to connect students immediately with peers went division-wide last year.

“They are supported especially in those first few days to understand where the amenities are, helping them get to class if need be, support on the playground, helping them get to their buses.”

A pilot project of evening sessions for immigrant parents on topics like culture, volunteering and the law, at St. Patrick’s, in partnership with CARE, will now be held for the entire division.

Red Deer Catholic can also access CARE interpreters for school events, police resource officers and counsellors for immigrant students and their families.

Cameron said having immigrant speakers come to schools to discuss drugs could be considered.

“By all means, we’re all about positivity and being proactive as opposed to having to be reactive. I think it would require some thought and some deliberation to making sure it was purposeful and meeting the needs of our students.”

Salazar’s friend said he wished he had someone like a big brother to tap him on the shoulder and say ‘Don’t.’

Salazar, who sold cellphones in a Red Deer mall for a few years, was trying to get his class one licence and get a oilfield job, said his friend who wished Salazar had taken steps to change his life sooner.

“We can change our kids. Show them you don’t have to be a drug dealer. You don’t have to be a thug. You don’t have to be a gangster. Canada is full of opportunities.”

szielinski@bprda.wpengine.com