Son of refugee parents finds home at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine

Omar Salman

David Hungate

Omar Salman on the Virginia Tech Carilion campus

Omar Salman remembers what it was like to struggle to get decent medical care. That memory was one of the factors that pointed him on the path of career in medicine. As the son of two Palestinian refugees, living in Kuwait and later in Jordan, Salman thought going to medical school was outside the realm of possibilities. After all, his family heritage indicated that education was not a reality. In fact, none of his four grandparents could read or write.

“With the political and social instabilities in the Middle East, my parents didn’t have many opportunities,” Salman said. “They wanted a better life for us.”

His father immigrated to the United States and settled in Nashville. The rest of his family followed a few years later. Salman arrived in the U.S. at the age of eight. He excelled in academics and later attended Vanderbilt University, majoring in biomedical engineering. He also spent several years working in a pharmacy.

Salman soon found that the notion of going to medical school──the idea that once seemed so far-fetched──started to look more like a possibility. Having spent his early years in countries where health care wasn’t very accessible, Salman was inspired to become a doctor.

“After years of hard work and determination, I found myself at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine,” he said. “I have embarked upon a journey that will be both rewarding and life-changing.” Salman chose the relatively new school for its small class size, patient-based curriculum, the comparatively low cost of living in Roanoke, and the quality of education he thought he would receive

“This is a very supportive environment,” he said. “As students, we can make suggestions, and we know the administration will take them seriously. Everything here is very new and very well planned and purposeful. It has the flexibility that you don’t find in a big school.”

Now in his second year of medical school, Salman is passionate about one day working for medically underserved populations. He founded the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine Chapter of the Student National Medical Association, an advocacy organization for improving care for minority patients and minority representation in medicine.

In this role, he plans programming around diversity and inclusion for his peers and participates in outreach to the local community to improve engagement of underrepresented minorities in medical careers. Later this year, he plans to go on a medical mission to provide care for refugees in a camp in Jordan.

“This school has become home for me because I know the faculty, staff, and mentors here support the professional development of its students in a way that is unique and specific to VTC,” Salman said.

Earlier this year, Salman was awarded the school’s Morgan Dana Harrington Memorial Scholarship. Daniel Harrington, vice dean of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, and Gil Harrington, established the scholarship to honor the memory of their daughter, who was tragically abducted and killed in 2009 after a concert in Charlottesville, Virginia. Morgan, 20, was a junior at Virginia Tech majoring in elementary education.

“I am humbled to be given this scholarship—something good that came out of something so horribly tragic—it’s deeply personal,” he said.

In fact, humility is a word with which Salman speaks about the hardships of his past, his opportunities, and his future practice as a physician.

“I realize that as a doctor, I may have a fancy degree, but patients are going to humble me,” he said. “Those who are seeking my care will want me to fix one little piece of their lives. It will be important for me to accept that I am ‘just a doctor.’ I can’t fix everything.”

Salman plans a career as a pediatrician, particularly to children whose care is marginalized or whose access to care falls through the cracks.

“I believe health care, no matter someone’s political, religious, or cultural background, is a universal right.”

By Catherine Doss