Journey from Immigrant Teen to Business Leader Aided by Mentors

Categories: Feature

The 1980s were a turbulent time in El Salvador. Consumed by a civil war, thousands of innocent civilians we terrorized by the unrest. It was no different for Omar Martinez. As a boy, Martinez and his family fled from their home in hopes of finding sanctuary in other parts of the country. But by the time Martinez was 14, he had become a military recruitment target like many other children. His parents had no choice but to get Martinez and his siblings out of El Salvador. With the loss of many friends and family members to the senseless acts of war, the perils of the journey north outweighed the almost certainty of death in El Salvador.

By November 1989, Martinez had crossed the Mexican-American border. He was detained by government officials and spent three months in a detention center for minors in Brownsville, Texas. After an uncle who had resettled in the Washington, D.C., area as lawful permanent residence came to Martinez’s aid and sponsored his immigration to the U.S., Martinez was granted temporary protected status.

Once he settled into his new life in the area, Martinez dedicated his time to learning. He attended a Montgomery County public high school  and Montgomery College. He also worked hard to help his uncle provide for their family. He found part-time employment as a dishwasher at Silver Diner, where he worked under the tutelage of executive chef Ype Von Hengst. Both his uncle and chef Von Hengst became Martinez’s mentors. They made him feel valued, loved, and wanted. Each took a special interest in his future. Von Hengst went as far as to become a sponsor in Martinez’s pursuit of becoming a legal U.S. resident.

Ready to begin his journey to become a legal resident, Martinez sought out the help of the Immigration Legal Services team at our Spanish Catholic Center in Gaithersburg, Md.. There, he began to work with attorney Celia Rivas, who was well-known and beloved in the community for her compassion and understanding. She provided guidance and solace throughout the process. In 2001, Martinez became a citizen.

Now married with three children, he is operating partner of Silver Diner restaurants.

Because of the compassion and motivation his mentors and Rivas provided, he was able to overcome the ordeals he faced as a child fleeing from a war-torn country. Today, Martinez is empathetic to those seeking the freedoms and opportunities he has been blessed with.

He has committed his life to help those around him. The restaurants employ nearly 2,000 people, 70 percent of whom are Hispanic. He routinely donates to local charities, including public schools and churches. In 2014, he was recognized by Montgomery County Public Schools  as the Best Business Owner for his commitment to and support of area schools.

Martinez’s story is one of hope and compassion. He is one of millions of immigrants from around the world who leave their home countries in the pursuit of happiness and safety. For Martinez, he was fortunate to have mentors who helped him succeed and to find the help he needed at the Spanish Catholic Center.

The Spanish Catholic Center and its supporters will be celebrated at a Saturday, Oct. 19, gala at the Marriott Marquis in Washington. Click here to learn more.