Turlock High School student Alejandro Varela has big dreams. He wants to earn his diploma, go to university and, hopefully, one day become a car mechanic. At just 16 years old, however, he’s endured more than most do in one lifetime just to get this far.
A native of Honduras, Varela lost his father at age 11. While outside one day fixing his car, Varela’s father witnessed a girl being assault and attempted to stop the attack. He was shot and killed by the assailants. Just two years later, when he was 13, Varela’s mother died from cancer.
Left alone, save for his older sister who had two young children of her own, Varela made a decision at age 15 to drive — alone — to the United States, where he applied for refugee status. Today, he lives in Turlock with his uncle and attends school as a Bulldog.
Varela’s story brought the group gathered in the Pitman High School gymnasium Wednesday evening to their feet, applauding the young boy who reminded them of the reason they were all together in the first place: to “Stand Against Hate” as part of an event hosted by the City of Turlock and Stanislaus State’s Joint Taskforce on Diversity and Inclusion.
Formed last fall after a dramatic two-year period where posters, stickers and hate rhetoric made headlines in Turlock, the taskforce has since worked together to coordinate, encourage and implement initiatives and activities to promote an inclusive community. Wednesday’s “Stand Against Hate” event was not only the first gathering hosted by the taskforce, but the first of its kind in Turlock, Stanislaus State President Ellen Junn said.
“Until tonight, many people may not have even realized how many people and students, young people and older groups, who are diverse live here in Turlock,” Junn said. “To be able for the first time to acknowledge, confirm and validate the experience of every single person is a key goal, as well as to improve the understanding and acceptance of other cultures and to have love in your heart for every single person, no matter who they are or where they come from.”
Varela was just one of four students from the THS English Learner Newcomer Program to share his story of coming to America from another country; THS students Monica Orellana (El Salvador), Sadiqa Karimi (Pakistan) and Jaswinder Kaur (India) all shared that even though they weren’t born here, America is their home.
“In my country and some other countries, females don’t have the right to go to school or to be like men in doing whatever they want to do...Women cannot reach their dreams or be what they want to be,” Karimi said. “While at Turlock High School...I will work hard to achieve my dreams for my future. In that way, I can help people and society and make my parents proud of me.”
On hand at the event was Turlock City Manager Bob Lawton, who presented Junn with a certificate proclaiming “Not in Our Community,” a resolution first passed by the Turlock City Council in 2017 after hate stickers and posters popped up around town and on the Stanislaus State campus. Nearly two years later, alt-right posters have been reported recently on the campus again, making Wednesday’s event all the more important, Junn said.
“I hope after tonight, people have a greater awareness of the diversity and beauty of so many different people with many different views,” Junn said. “I hope they know there are people in the legislature, elected officials, city government and university officials who want to bring all of that together.”
A diverse group joined Junn and Lawton at the event, including Congressman Josh Harder, Assemblyman Heath Flora’s District Director Couper Conduit, Turlock Police Chief Nino Amirfar, Assyrian American Civic Club President Sam David, NAACP President Wendy Byrd and representatives from the Muslim, Sikh and Christian communities as well.
According to Junn, the Joint Taskforce on Diversity and Inclusion will be hosting more events in the future. For updates or to contact the taskforce, visit https://www.csustan.edu/diversity-matters.