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The Somali Refugee Who Became an Investment Banker

Salam Omar’s journey to a Morgan Stanley career includes escaping a war-torn homeland, growing up in France, losing a basketball scholarship, and working with the Navy SEALs.

Of his first month in France, Salam Omar has one vivid memory: Being placed in first grade at the local primary school in Lyon as an eight-year-old Somali refugee who spoke no French and towered over his classmates.

“To say I felt out of place is an understatement,” he says, recalling his culture shock from over a decade ago. Yet, as the eldest of four children determined to help his single mother—his father had been killed in Somalia’s civil war—adjust to life in France as quickly as possible, Omar learned to speak fluent French within a year and joined his peers in an age-appropriate class.

His grit and determination would carry him through many more ups and downs, until he found his way into the U.S. Navy as an interpreter working with the elite SEALs. Today, as a Navy veteran, U.S. citizen, and first-year Investment Banking Analyst at Morgan Stanley, Omar is ever mindful of his eventful journey.

“It instilled in me the value of hard work and discipline, and catalyzed my belief that challenge can transform you into a stronger, more capable person in ways you never thought possible,” he says.

One Opportunity Falls Through....

Take, for example, when Omar thought basketball would be his ticket to an American university. In Lyon, he found his passion on the court, becoming a star forward who caught the eye of an American scout recruiting for a Big-12 college team. After a series of tryouts, Omar was offered an athletic scholarship and moved to the U.S., where he began learning English.

Then came a knee injury that sidelined him for several months. Despite intense rehabilitation, he wasn’t the same player when he returned to the court, and his scholarship offer was revoked. “I was crushed—playing basketball at a high level had been my dream. But I took comfort in that I was in the U.S., and decided to stay and build a new dream—the American dream.”

Omar decided to sign up for the U.S. Navy’s Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) program. MAVNI offers immigrants in the country legally on other visas a way to enlist, serve, and find a path to citizenship. As a Somali on a student visa, he was a perfect candidate, given the Navy’s demand for interpreters. After boot camp in Chicago, Omar was assigned to a naval base near San Diego, where he trained as an interpreter with the Navy SEALs.

...As Another Opens Up

“Working with the SEALs was intense, one of the most challenging experiences of my life—and I had been through a lot by that time. But I still had some growing to do, and Navy training gave me the additional focus and direction I needed to start a new life in the U.S.” Omar would serve four years before receiving an honorary discharge. He took advantage of the GI Bill to complete his bachelor’s degree at the University of Oklahoma.

After graduating, Omar’s naval contacts steered him to Morgan Stanley’s Veterans Early Insights initiative, a full-day program for veterans to learn about the firm’s culture and opportunities, which led to a summer internship in 2017. He impressed peers and senior executives with his quiet resolve and work ethic. After 10 weeks of absorbing everything that came his way, Omar was offered a full-time position in Investment Banking, where he now works on a team that advises clients on mergers and acquisitions and helps them raise capital through the debt or equity markets.

“Working in investment banking requires hard work, intellectual curiosity, and thinking on your feet,” says Omar. “I’ve been given an incredible opportunity to work with skilled professionals who are eager to mentor and share their wisdom, but who also recognize and respect my own indirect, but no less challenging journey to the firm. This work environment is all that I could have asked for, and more.”

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