British Columbia

Former teen refugee recognized this week for helping immigrants

Five "multicultural champions" were honoured during an awards gala in Vancouver Friday night at the seventh annual British Columbia Multicultural Awards. Jorge Salazar is one of five multicultural champions profiled for multicultural week.

Jorge Salazar is one of five champions profiled for multicultural week

Jorge Salazar is one of five "multicultural champions" profiled this week. When he was a teenager, he and his family left Colombia to seek refuge in Canada. He now has three children of his own and lives in Vancouver, working to help immigrants.

Five "multicultural champions" were honoured during an awards gala in Vancouver Friday night at the seventh annual British Columbia Multicultural Awards.

The event caps multicultural week put on by the Ministry of International Trade. One of the youth leaders profiled this week is a former young refugee, who four years ago, was also given the award.

Jorge Salazar as a teenager in Colombia with some of his aunts and cousins. His family fled the country, worried they would not survive attacks from paramilitary groups.

Jorge Salazar was just a teenager when he fled his close-knit La Pradera neighbourhood in Medellin, Colombia with his mom, dad, sister and brother, leaving dozens of close friends and family behind.

"These are conversations that we have to have, even though there's a lot of emotions that goes along with them," Salazar said. 

In Colombia, his father worked as a human rights researcher with a non-governmental organization (NGO) and his mother was a women's rights activist.

His father's research drew attention to human rights abuses by armed militia and as a result he was targeted by right wing paramilitary groups in the country.

"He was threatened. He was kidnapped and he was released with a warning. Many things like this happened. We felt that if we wanted to stay alive, we had the flee the country," Salazar said.

Safety in Canada but still work to be done

After what he calls a long journey, his family felt a sense of safety and refuge in Vancouver.

B.C. accepts close to 40,000 new immigrants every year. In 2015, the B.C. government  provided nearly $1.7 million to engage cultural groups "to fight racism and discrimination and to promote multiculturalism," according to the Ministry of International Trade.

However, Salazar said he was surprised to find himself facing discrimination and poverty in Canada. He said he was also surprised to learn of human-rights abuses suffered by Canada's Indigenous population.

"I would have never guessed, never guess this was going on here. I really look forward to immigrants coming here today to learn about the history and reality of Indigenous people today," he said.

Jorge Salazar with his mom, dad and brother. Before leaving Colombia, his mother was a women's rights advocate and his father was a human rights researcher with an NGO. They fled to Canada as refugees 15 years ago and now live in Vancouver.

Today, Salazar works for the Vancouver Foundation as a manager of a program called Fresh Voices. The project works to engage immigrant youth and elected officials to work together on systemic change.

"We need to provide opportunities for all members of this society, in my case immigrants and refugees, to be involved in public policy conversations, regardless of immigration status or cultural backgrounds," Salazar said. 

He said the recognition he got this week from the provincial government is an honour but also puts the pressure on. 

"I feel that I really have to double down on my work to fulfil peoples' expectations — it's really raised expectations," he said.

Salazar was in attendance at Friday night's event and said he was anxious to hear the names of the five new recipients. 

The B.C. government gives awards to individuals and organizations who use the arts to break down barriers and unite communities.

It received 146 nominations for the British Columbia Multicultural Awards in five categories: individual, organization, business, youth and multicultural excellence in government.