Wojouh: Omar M. Yamak
One of the greatest assets of Greater Tripoli is its very own people. Whether in Tripoli or abroad, Greater Tripolitans have continued to excel and innovate. As a result, Tripolicy has decided to launch a series called Project Wojouh to shed light on some notable figures and rising stars.
Omar Yamak is a Designer for the upcoming startup, Mojo Software. Born to an Icelandic mother and a Lebanese father, Omar grew up juggling his two backgrounds as he pursued his academic, professional, and athletic careers. Yamak has a black belt in Jiu Jitsu and has participated in multiple mixed martial arts competitions across many countries.
Tripolicy's Raafat Yamak got the opportunity to sit down with Omar to discuss his background, ambitions, and advice to Tripolitan youth striving to achieve excellence.
Raafat Yamak: Omar, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to Tripolicy!
Omar Yamak: Thank you for having me on!
RY: I want to start off by saying that you may be the only Lebanese-Icelandic person in the entire world, excluding your sister, of course.
OY: I think this is true. Iceland is a small country with a small population. There isn't much diversity here and growing up, I knew that I was a little different than the rest of my colleagues and friends.
RY: I can imagine. Can you describe for us your background, particularly your family background?
OY: Sure. So my father and mother met in Peruca, Italy as they were both studying there at the time. They had my sister in Italy and then shortly moved back to Iceland and had me. Growing up, I would say I had a basic Icelandic upbringing. My mother worked as an architect while my father was a pharmacist. Unfortunately, when I was 10 years old, my mother passed away and that was a huge shock to our family. After that, it was just me, my sister, and father.
RY: I can't imagine how tough that must have been for your family.
OY: It was very tough but luckily, my father was extremely strong and was able to continue to take care of the family. I also have to say that the Icelandic government spared no effort to help our family and other families that may face similar issues. The family support programs are very helpful here. I don't remember too many details before my mother's passing. It was only after, that I started to realize things would be different.
RY: Well, it is clear to me that both your parents did a great job with your upbringing. Did you ever go on a family trip with your mother to Lebanon?
OY: Yes! That was the only time I visited Lebanon, when I was about 6 years old. It is one of my early memories with my family, and I got to meet my Lebanese family in Tripoli. The food and weather was amazing. I had planned to go back last year but COVID-19 struck and that caused me to cancel the trip.
RY: Ah, that's too bad. Hopefully if things improve in Lebanon, you should definitely go back and visit! So, back to Iceland, as someone with a mixed background, did you face any incidents in school that directly tied to your background?
OY: So, when I was young, there was even less diversity in Iceland! Kids were curious about my background and would ask questions. There were some other kids who would pick on me but to be totally honest, they didn't even know what Lebanon really was. All they knew was that I didn't look pure Icelandic. However, when they would come over to my house and see my father's Lebanese cooking, all the negativity would cease. They fell in love with Lebanese cuisine, and my father is an absolutely great cook!
RY: It is great to hear that you were able to maintain ties to Lebanon through your father's cooking!
OY: Oh yes, his food is great. My father is a very disciplined person. Growing up, he placed extraordinary emphasis on education and was very involved in my day-to-day life. As you probably know, Lebanese parents don't play around when it comes to education and job prospects!
RY: I'm fully aware! Moving on from your background, I wanted to ask, how did you started your Jiu Jitsu journey?
OY: So when I was 16, I had bought a scooter and would ride it around the city. One day, as I was riding it, I came across a Jiu Jitsu gym. I decided to check it out and noticed how rigorous the training was. At that moment, I decided that I wanted to seriously pursue this sport. It was just a feeling that overwhelmed me, and that moment was when I knew that this sport would be a major part of my life. The weird thing is that I was never really involved with too many sports as a child, so I had no prior athletic experience.
RY: That's interesting. What was it like when you started competing in competitions?
OY: Oh it was great! I began competing locally in Iceland and then I started competing internationally. The first international competition that I was in was in Sweden, and there were so many people who come from all kinds of different mixed martial arts background. It was a nervous and exciting time as well. Additionally, I developed great friendships throughout these competitions.
RY: That's awesome. And which competitions were most memorable for you?
OY: Five years into my career, I wanted to become the Icelandic champion for my weight class and then move on to the European Championships. Once I won Icelandic Nationals, I wanted to move on to the European Championships which was based in Portugal. I got third place in the European Championships! However now that I'm a black belt, I will be facing a more difficult challenge in the European Championships, as I compete with other black belt mixed martial artists!
RY: That's really impressive, man! When did you earn your black belt?
OY: I earned it two and a half years ago, in 2019. It was a great year for me but it was also a difficult year. After I got my black belt, I herniated my disc. I had been training very hard and unfortunately I neglected my back during that process. I learned that I needed to take care of my body more.
RY: How did you overcome that injury? Did you feel like it was over?
OY: Oh man, it was a tough time. I had never faced a serious injury before, and the pain was excruciating. When I found out that I had herniated my disc after the MRI results came out, I got extremely emotional because I thought it was the end of my MMA journey, I read so many articles on herniated disc injuries, and almost all of them talked about how it was very difficult to recover. That's when I went crazy with looking at medical literature that discusses how to recover from back injuries. It was a long journey but I'm happy to say that I was able to overcome it.
RY: That's fantastic. I'm well aware that back injuries are not easy but I'm glad that you were able to overcome this obstacle. What about your academic and professional career? How was that journey?
OY: When I graduated from High School, I really didn't know what I wanted to major in. At the time, I was so heavily involved with MMA and I would come back home late from training, I didn't have much time to think about what I wanted to do as a professional career. Obviously this did not make my father happy, and he would consistently encourage me to enter university and pursue a route similar to his own. So, I decided to take my father's advice and pursued Chemistry. As I mentioned before, my father is a pharmacist and he seemed to have thought that I could be something similar to that. However, a couple of months later, I decided to opt for a different route as I had little passion for that field. I left academia and started working as a teacher for special needs. After that, I noticed that I had an interest in the online presence so I began taking classes in programming and web design. While I was doing that, my friend reached out to me about creating an application tailored to physical therapists where a therapy routine can be managed via the app. This was stemmed from the fact that many people think that they will be healed only through the physical therapy classes, when in reality, the majority of the healing process happens at home. Now, clients can have access to these physical therapy routines from home. Shortly after this success, we started expanding to other businesses. In the beginning, we barely got any customers but now, we have managed to attract big clients, including international firms.
RY: That's very impressive. I think with our generation, there is more opportunity to pursue non-traditional methods when it comes to learning. Everything is online right now, and resources are at the tip of our fingertips. Are the networking opportunities in Iceland abundant for your business?
OY: I agree, and yes, there are some networking opportunities. Iceland has a very small population and you feel like everyone somehow knows each other. If I was to act in an inappropriate way, for example, I'm certain my cousin who wasn't even there would find out somehow. I like to describe Iceland as a bubble in that regard. This family-like environment helps foster more networking opportunities, but it also limits expansion into other markets. This is why international expansion requires much more effort.
RY: Absolutely, I can see that. Lastly, I wanted to ask you, since you have a black belt, if you would have any advice to young Tripolitans looking to get into Jiu Jitsu.
OY: My advice would be to create a schedule that protects your body while achieving the goals you want. Secondly, surround yourself with highly motivated people and be truthful with yourself about the benchmarks you would like to accomplish. Furthermore, have a coach or a mentor who could guide you, and make the experience challenging and fun. Most of the things we do is based on social activity so ensuring that the people around you are a positive force is a must.
RY: That is solid advice, Omar. I want to thank you for your time today. It has been an honor having you on and listening to your answers.
OY: Likewise, and I hope Tripolicy continues to grow and accomplish more goals!
About the Author:
R. Mahmoud Yamak is a petroleum engineer currently residing in Dallas, TX. He is a commentator on Arab and Middle Eastern affairs who has previously written for the Daily Sabah, The New Arab, Muftah Magazine, among others. He is the founder of The Tripolitan Podcast and co-founder of Tripolicy.