Tough life forced Omar Newell to exceed expectations

St Mary boy overcomes poverty, physical abuse to become attorney

BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor special assignment browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Saturday, July 11, 2015

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GROWING up in a one-bedroom house with five people could not dictate Omar Newell's future, as the now 33-year-old attorney was determined to make a better life for himself through the attainment of a good education.

Not only did the St Mary native grow up poor, but he also had to endure a stepfather who was abusive to him and his mother. However, this did not prevent him being successful in the Common Entrance Examination which first started him on the journey of utilising education as the vehicle to take him places.

"Everything I have been able to accomplish is through education. I can't think of any other vehicle that could propel a poor boy from St Mary to the places I have been and the things I have done," said Newell, who is now the consultant/project co-ordinator leading the Government's land titling project in the Ministry of Transport, Works and Housing.

Noting that education has transformed the way he thinks, Newell said he has always lived by the definition he has coined for excellence, which is simply "exceeding expectations".

"I would like to see poverty eradicated, but a lot of my learning and accomplishment was because of my being poor, because that is what drove me to exceed expectations," he said.

He recalled a childhood which included going to different primary schools and moving frequently from one community to another with his family. Although he grew up in several communities in St Mary, Newell said his maternal grandmother, now deceased, often told him the story of her taking him from the hospital to her home in Islington where he lived with his mother until he was about two years old.

Up until he was 11, Newell grew up with his mother and stepfather when he was not being sent to live with his aunt Iris Murray, who took him with her whenever she had to relocate for her job as a midwife.

But according to Newell, his childhood was a "mixed bag of happiness" at some point and intense emotional and physical pain at other times.

He recalled growing up in Fraserwood, St Mary in a one-bedroom house with four other persons.

"There were five of us sleeping on one bed -- my mother, stepfather, my stepfather's brother, and my little sister," he recalled.

As the oldest child, his responsibilities included caring for the family's livestock, cleaning the pig pen and tying out the goats before school in the mornings.

And, as if his life was not hard enough, Newell dealt with an abusive stepfather who, while he would provide for the family on one hand, would be equally violent on the other.

Newell said there were some good memories as he recalled his stepfather going out to do odd jobs and bringing home food to prepare a meal because they had not eaten all day.

"We never had money, so we would stay up until he got home from doing odd jobs and it was at that time he would go and fry some dumplings for us," he recalled.

But Newell said his mother and stepfather would fight a lot, and, like his mother, he was not spared his stepfather's wrath.

"One day I went to the shop to buy big gill of oil and he realised that the bottle I had didn't have a cork and he slapped me in the face with a machete he had in his hand," Newell recalled. "Sometimes I would wonder how someone who had good in them would also have so much evil."

Unable to deal with all that was happening at home, Newell ran away at age 10, but his plan did not yield much fruit as he did not get further than his paternal grandmother in Portland, who promptly sent him back the next morning to a fine whipping.

Despite the turmoil in his young life, Newell was successful in his Common Entrance Examinations at the then Highgate All-Age School and gained a place at St Mary High. Despite the challenges his mother was dealing with, Newell said she always set aside her troubles to spend time motivating and encouraging him to strive for a better life than she had.

"My mother used to hammer in my head that I needed to do better than her. She would tell me that 'yuh caan come out to chop banana', and so she would mentor my every fantasy of whatever I said I wanted to be in life," he explained.

He recalled his mother being adamant that he be allowed to sit the Common Entrance in grade five, despite the reluctance of his teachers because he was younger than the other candidates.

Things were tough for the family, as his mother could not even afford to buy him uniforms for him to begin high school.

"I remembered she begged a lady whose son was in fifth form for a pair of pants and because of how skinny I was, the leg of the pants was like a parachute around me," he said, adding, "It didn't matter, because I felt I was able to do better than persons with crisp new pants, because where I was, wasn't as important as where I was looking to go."

Unfortunately, because of the turmoil in his life, Newell's grades started going downhill in the second year of high school, and the decision was made to have him transferred to Titchfield High in Portland. However, by the time he got to Titchfield his grades had deteriorated so much that he was placed in the same class as students who were unsuccessful in the Common Entrance.

His mother, he said, had a grand plan to save enough money to get away from the abusive situation, but he was not prepared for the day when she did.

"I was living by my aunt and was in the ninth or 10th grade when she told me one day that my mother had ran away. My mother would always give hints and say things like 'I feel like just run and leave all of you', and she had said it so often but I didn't know that she meant she would just up and disappear," he said.

That, Newell recalled, was a devastating period in his life, given the close relationship he shared with his mother.

"I was upset that she ran away and didn't tell me," he said, explaining that his mother simply disappeared, abandoning even a small salon she had been operating in Highgate.

She was gone for a year and a half before he finally got a number and went in search of her in Clarendon where she had been living.

"It was so good seeing her because, for my formative years, my mother acted as both my mom and dad and that was why I was so upset when she ran away without telling me," he said, adding, "but I understood that she just couldn't deal with the abuse and the insecurity."

With his mother out of his life, and in a bid to create a second family, Newell became part of a group at Titchfield who dubbed themselves the Bulla Crew. Also, in an effort not to focus on what was happening in his life, he got involved in a lot of extra-curricular activities to create distractions to the detriment of his school work.

By fifth form, only five teachers would recommend him for CXC. He recalled that the turning point was when a teacher, Orton Manahan, had a discussion with him and some other boys about the path their lives were taking.

Yet another teacher, Miss Roper, called his aunt to complain that he had not done his School-Based Assessment (SBA) for a subject and would therefore not be allowed to sit that exam if it was not completed.

"I remember it was a Sunday and my aunt did not allow me to eat dinner that day until I did it, and so I completed the SBA in one day and got a B and I thought how much more I could have got if I had done it before then," he said.

At the end of fifth form, he graduated from Titchfield with four subjects and then came the question as to where to go from there. His only option was to go and work with his father, Lloyd, who was then a sub-contractor for a biscuit company.

When his father migrated and the business later folded, Newell resorted to whatever work he could find, which included being a door-to-door salesman.

"One day I was down to my last pair of shoes and I was living off Waltham Park Road by this, and I was going home in a bus when a gunman held me up and stole all the money. I went home and I thought about it and realised this wasn't working out," he explained.

It was then that he was accepted into HEART's School Leavers Training Opportunity Programme and eventually received a temporary work placement at the National Housing Trust (NHT).

He was placed under the supervision of one Morcelle Brown, whom he described as a phenomenal Jamaican woman. The job included placing stamps on the backs of receipts, and Newell said he did it to the best of his ability.

"Morcelle would speak to me about the importance of speaking properly and dressing properly and she got permission to have me trained as a relief teller," he said, explaining that this gave him the opportunity to begin working in the loans department with one of his most satisfying assignments being to hand over the keys to recipients of houses at Longville Park in Clarendon.

Following a terrible motor vehicle accident which saw him being hospitalised, Newell was placed on a special project on his return to the NHT and it was during that time he founded the 'We Care, Adopt a Child' project to subsidise living expenses and provide mentorship for high school students mainly from the inner city. He was also able to get the buy-in from staff who were required to contribute $50 per month.

But unable to land a full-time job at NHT without a first degree, Newell applied to Munroe College in New York. With no money to fund his education he turned to his father, who was living in New York and who exhausted his credit card to pay for that first year.

"He was the one who kept me motivated and would say we just have to find a way to get through this," Newell said, adding that he eventually got a job on campus and all available scholarships. When he graduated summa cum laude from Munroe with
a Business Management degree, Newell had a 4.0 GPA and was offered a job by Chris Burns at public relations firm Zena Group in New York, ahead of starting law school.

Newell was accepted to five of the six law schools he applied to, but eventually settled on Northwestern University of Law in Chicago, considered among the top 10 law schools in the US.

"Although I had loans piling up like crazy, I went there and just focused on school," said Newell, who made the Dean's List twice.

"Education gives you a lot of opportunities," he added as he pointed out that he went to Russia to conduct research on the revolution of their laws, and also to Germany.

He was referred to the Loan Repayment Assistant Programme for which he qualified, based on the fact that he was returning to Jamaica to do work in the public interest.

"Because of that, they pay $15,000 of my student loan each year just to support me giving back to my country instead of going on Wall Street to work," said Newell, who recently completed a two-year stint at the National Youth Service in Kingston.

On completion of his Juris doctorate Newell was employed as adjunct professor of business law at Munroe. He also served as a research assistant to Professor Leonard Rubinowitz at Northwestern where he discovered that he did not wish to practice law but was better suited for academia or politics, despite having passed the New York Bar.

One of his most satisfying accomplishments while in law school was the opportunity to work on US President Barack Obama's election campaign in 2008, which saw him engaging in rallying expatriates in Jamaica to vote, and organising debate watch parties, among other activities.

Despite his success, Newell has never forgotten his roots, as he has since returned to his St Mary community to establish a farming project to engage youth through agriculture.

Do you know anyone who has been able to break the cycle of poverty through education? Let us tell their stories and help to inspire others. Email browni@jamaicaobserver.com or call 876 564-1522

  

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