By Stephen Sheedy
GALVESTON, TX — Full of hope and aspirations for a better life, Rashid Sheikh-ali, a native of Mogadishu, Somalia, set out on a life-changing journey in 1980 that would take him from Africa to America -- where he would become a structural engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Galveston District.
"After graduating high school I knew I had to work to help support my mother and brothers," said Sheikh-ali. "My father was a high school teacher and his income wasn't sufficient enough to provide for the family. I went to work in the Middle East and lived in Baghdad, Damascus, Syria and Aden, Yemen and I sent the majority of my earnings back home."
Sheikh-ali eventually sent enough money back to Somalia so that his family could afford to build their own home. Once his family's living situation became stable, he refocused his efforts on investing in his future and made the commitment to attend college.
"Since I spoke Italian, I decided to attend college in Italy," said Sheikh-ali. "However, it wasn't meant to be because I couldn't get into a college. After six months I returned to Somalia."
Undeterred, Sheikh-ali refused to give up his educational goals but wasn't certain how he would make his dream a reality until one day a serendipitous event altered the course of his life.
"I was walking by a library near the United States Embassy and I just happened to look through the window," said Sheikh-ali. "I saw a sign that advertised attending college in America and I decided to apply and was accepted. It was by accident, beautiful luck that I came to America."
With $2,000 in his pocket and a suitcase of personal belongings, Sheikh-ali was both excited to begin his journey and also overwhelmed knowing that the future he dreamed of was beginning to fall into place. He arrived in the U.S. days before Christmas in 1983.
"I first attended college at the University of the District of Columbia to study construction management," Sheikh-ali said. "I worked my way through school doing odd jobs such as dishwashing and working as a security guard and cab driver. It was worth it because upon graduation I landed my first professional job as a construction engineer."
For the next 21 years he accepted a variety of engineering positions along the East Coast that provided him with increased responsibilities and promotion potential.
"I had been working with the Department of Public Works in Baltimore for 15 years," said Sheikh-ali. "However, the job had become stagnant and I realized it was time to do something else. That's when I decided to start looking for new employment through USAJobs."
When a structural engineer position with the USACE Galveston District's Construction Division, Structural and Geotechnical Section, came available, Sheik-ali quickly applied and hoped he would be selected for the position that would enable him to transform his creative visions into purposeful structures.
"Civil engineering involves starting with a blank sheet of paper with a conceptual idea, a rough sketch and the application of an engineering equation," said Sheikh-ali. While slowly working your way through a project, a clear picture and a solution emerges. Nothing is as fulfilling as seeing one's engineering design evolve from paper to reality."
As a structural engineer, he designs and performs analysis of hydraulic structures including intake structures, culverts, outlets as well as engineering structures such as bridges, buildings and deep-pile systems for flood control project and continues to provide a supporting role in the design of the Addicks and Barker dams. In addition to the usual demands of engineering, working along the Texas coast provides him with challenges most engineers wouldn't encounter in many other parts of the country.
"The nature of many of the Galveston District's engineering responsibilities deal with hurricanes and flood risk mitigation projects," said Sheikh-ali. "This demands a more in-depth knowledge of the nature of forces and stresses that structures are subjected to by waves and hurricane winds of 140 mph."
In addition to finding the work interesting, Sheikh-ali believes that it is the people who make the Galveston District a special place to work.
"When I first arrived in Galveston, my family was living in Egypt where my children attended school," said Sheikh-ali. "During last year's political upheaval my family fled the country to join me in Galveston and due to the speed of events, I didn't have time to properly prepare for their arrival."
Living in a studio apartment and lacking the space needed for a family of six, Sheikh-ali's colleagues gladly lent a helping hand to welcome his family and make their transition as smooth as possible.
"Suddenly my pregnant wife, four children and I were living in one room," Sheikh-ali said. "My co-workers came to our aid by giving us mattresses, blankets, pillows and other needed items. The level of kindness and help we received overwhelmed my family."
Though Sheikh-ali may have left one family in Africa, he has built another with his USACE Galveston District family, establishing roots in Texas and living the life he could once merely dream of.
Sheikh-ali earned a bachelor's degree in construction management from the University of the District of Columbia in 1989, a master's degree in structural engineering from the University of Maryland at College Park in 1995 and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Baltimore in 2007. With all of his academic achievements, Sheikh-ali says he is most proud of his recent accomplishment of passing the Professional Engineer exam in June.
"Earning my PE License was like climbing the last and most arduous mile of the mountain," said Sheikh-ali. "A master's degree in engineering and the experience gained through the years are all good, but passing the Professional Engineer Exam is the ultimate validation of one's skills and professional abilities. On a personal level, it's a confirmation in self-belief to have listened to that inner truth which incessantly continues to whisper to you, 'you can do it.'"
A husband and father of five, Sheikh-ail enjoys soccer, jogging and watching nature programs in his free time.
US Army Corps of Engineers