By NUWC Newport
The pride is unmistakable as Mohamed Ahmed, an electrical engineer in the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport’s Sensors and Sonar Systems Department, lays out a series of pictures on the table in front of him. It’s late November 2022 and cold rain drops dot the window next to him, but Ahmed is beaming as he points at each Polaroid. The images are waypoints in a life well lived.
A picture of his three sons, Rashid, Aseef and Abdul-Kareem, as young boys in Scouts, is situated next to a much more recent photo of Abdul-Kareem — now a neurosurgery resident — studying an X-ray.
There are images of his time working at the Naval Underwater Systems Center (NUSC) in New London, Connecticut, in the 1980s and 90s, one in a sound laboratory and another on a research vessel in the field. It was there he learned to love signal processing and acoustics.
On Nov. 21, 2022, Ahmed marked 50 years since arriving in the United States as a refugee from Uganda. Those 50 years of embracing challenges are evident in his eyes, but there’s a brightness there, too.
That luster comes from three pillars that have always and continue to guide Mohamed Ahmed’s life — family, faith, and mathematics.
“Assess what you have and make the best of it. As one door closes, another door opens, invariably,” Ahmed said. “Faith gives you an anchor. Faith in a system or faith in God, because you have hope. There’s always hope.
“I went through all the physics and math with no job early in my career, but I was still chugging along. You have to have faith in the written word, the science. You have to have faith in some things and that carries you through.”
Growing up in Kumi Town
Ahmed can trace his family roots as far back as the 1800s from Gujarat on the northwest coast of India and later to Mombasa, Kenya, in 1882. In 1945, his grandfather immigrated to Kumi Town — Kumi, for short — settling in the small town about 100 miles west of the Kenyan border. Ahmed was born nine years later, the third of seven children — three boys and four girls. Even from an early age, education was important to Ahmed.
“Public elementary schools were not free, so your parents paid for it. Many of the native Ugandans didn’t have the money, so only a few who did would send their kids to school,” he said. “Now, it’s probably mandated, but you didn’t have to send your kid to school because you had to pay tuition.”
The Indian community had set up its own education system using Gujarati script — a language similar to Sanskrit — and schools taught basics like code of conduct, reading and writing. The math multiplication tables had to be memorized, Ahmed recalled.
“I went to this school until fifth grade and then the school was merged with the native Ugandan school a couple years after independence from Britain in 1962,” Ahmed said. “In that school, everything was conducted in English.”
In order to go to high school, Ahmed explained, he needed to pass a three-hour exam with all A’s. The government partially subsidized high school in Uganda, so it was not going to allow just anyone to attend.
“I made the cut,” Ahmed said. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.”
He attended high school in Mbale — about an hour drive south of Kumi — where he had to pay money to board with a local family for each school year.
“It was very strict. You had to wear a uniform, blue trousers and a white shirt,” Ahmed said. “You had to be very careful about that, as well make sure you were on time. There was a time when they locked up the compound and you had to explain why you were late.”
Ahmed’s high school years were pivotal to his path in life, as he found his niche just as the country began to crumble.
“I always had a knack for math. In the whole high school, I got the highest grade in math,” Ahmed said. “I always thought I would go to the big city, Kampala [Uganda’s capital], that was my dream. I was going to go to college there and be somebody.”
That path changed on Jan. 25, 1971, when Idi Amin seized power in Uganda in a military coup and declared himself president.
“Uncertainty kills you. It’s bad for the economy, and it’s bad for the psyche. You want things to be peaceful, without static in the air,” Ahmed said. “People like routine and to live their lives cordially, and all that got shattered. We were stateless at that point and very terrified.”
Ahmed said he did not personally experience any violence during this time but the unrest was palpable. Amin is considered one of the most brutal dictators in East African history, with hundreds of thousands of Ugandans killed at his behest during his eight-year reign. Well before Amin expelled tens of thousands of Asian immigrants in August 1972, though, Ahmed’s family began looking for a way out of the country.
Even in the face of this uncertainty, Ahmed had faith everything would work out.
“There always is a plus or minus in life, no matter what you do,” he said. “The key is to always get more positives than negatives.”
Finding his footing
In 1972, one of Ahmed’s brothers traveled to the U.S. embassy in Kampala — about 150 miles south of Kumi — to find a way out of Uganda. There, the embassy connected the Ahmed family with Lutheran missionaries based in Minneapolis, who arranged to fly the family to Minnesota after a brief stay in Rome.
“We left everything behind,” Ahmed said. “All we had were our clothes and a little bit of gold.”
Ahmed’s family and two others arrived in Rome in late August 1972. He’s not entirely sure who paid for their accommodations during their time in Italy, whether it was the United Nations or U.S. officials, but he’s grateful to whomever did.
He recalled visits to the Sistine Chapel and Trevi Fountain, as well as an opportunity to attend Mass at the Vatican with Pope Paul VI. More importantly, this short time in Rome prepared him for the next stage of his journey.
“We got a chance to see what a more organized, Westernized-world looks like,” Ahmed said. “We saw how they behave and you learn from each other. We saw how they collect themselves, work and address each other.”
Once in Minneapolis, there were challenges for the family finding its place in a new country, particularly securing jobs and finding ways to get there once they had them. Ahmed recalled the three-mile bike ride his father had to get to work — much easier during the summer months than the harsh Minnesota winter.
“You have to realize, there was no internet or network that you see today,” Ahmed said. “Finding what profession you are going to do was the biggest thing. Besides all the snow and weather, which is a constant in Minnesota, where do you find your footing in this world? What niche or specialty are you going to do?”
Despite the challenges, the family made it work. They saved enough money to pay back the missionaries for the flights from Uganda, and Ahmed finished his remaining six months of high school he had left from his time in Uganda, even earning a $500 scholarship.
He learned new hobbies in Minnesota, too.
“I remember walking down the street and seeing this black-and-white TV in a storefront. It was showing ice skating; I couldn’t believe how fast they were moving without wheels,” Ahmed said. “I learned how to ice skate in Minneapolis and never let go. To this day, I go ice skating at the rink at the University of Rhode Island.”
In the fall of 1973, Ahmed enrolled at the University of Minnesota to study physics. The first among the new arrivals to attend college, he gravitated to the subject because he “wanted to solve mysteries.”
As it turned out, finding a job once he graduated proved a far more difficult task than balancing equations. The $500 scholarship covered about half his tuition for the first year, so he found other work to pay his way through school.
“I was working in a factory in the summers and doing odd jobs,” Ahmed said. “The factory made rubber parts for all kinds of products. They molded them onto different metals, resulting in all kinds of obscure looking parts.”
After earning degrees in physics and mathematics but still not finding a job in the field, a classmate suggested Ahmed try electrical engineering. After nine years and three degrees, his break finally came when a NUSC New London employee made a recruiting trip through the Midwest. The recruiter, Zenon “Ziggy” Czepizak, whose son Kurt now serves as head of the Technology Integration Branch in the Advanced Concepts Division of the Sensors and Sonar Systems Department, Code 1523, stopped at the University of Minnesota and Ahmed secured a job at the New London laboratory.
“What I love about the United States and NUWC [representatives] is they try to extend themselves and recruit graduates from other states to work here,” Ahmed said. “It could be one or two people, but they provide all American citizens an equal chance.”
Settling down in New London
Ahmed started working at NUSC New London in July 1983. His first assignment was on a project called Kamloops, working with recordings of scale-model submarine pop-up tests at Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho.
“I went out there and was doing basically bookkeeping and recording, all that,” Ahmed said. “I wasn’t doing the actual signal processing, but it was a starter job.”
As time passed, the work improved, and included tests on twin-line efforts and other arrays both at sea and on land. He also made two trips to Kenya in the first three years at NUSC, returning with a wife after the second trip in 1986. The connection was made through members of the community.
“People think this is all arranged marriages and such, but that’s not how this works,” Ahmed said. “There is a community of 5,000 people or so and the matchmaking is quite a task. Word gets out and people interested will come forward, or someone will bring you to their family or introduce you.
“Once you get introduced, if it clicks, it clicks. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t, and that’s life. You only need that one click. Going back to being from Uganda, there was a connection there.”
Everything in Ahmed’s life began to fall into place after returning from Kenya. He and his wife, Karima, had three sons between 1988 and 1990 — their daughter, Neelam, was born in 2000.
Along the way, he earned a master’s degree from the University of Connecticut and learned on the job from brilliant acoustic scientists like Albert Nuttall, Norman Owsley and Ronald Knipfer, among others.
“We all need to find our footing in the world. The footing is professional, the footing is spiritual, and the footing also is family affairs,” Ahmed said. “Who do you settle down with?”
The implementation of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), which began in 1992, would unsettle that footing, but Ahmed had faced greater challenges in the past. When the New London lab’s work was transferred to NUWC Division Newport in 1995, Ahmed followed. He commuted by van from New London for the first four years that he worked at Newport before eventually settling in South Kingstown, Rhode Island.
Though it was a change, the move provided Ahmed the opportunity to continue some of the most rewarding work of his career.
Signal Processing Working Group
Between 1995 and 1996, the Advanced Processor Build (APB) Program was stood up to leverage the developments in commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technology and to save costs. This proved to be a revolutionary step in development of sonar for the fleet, as it provided an upgradeable processing system specific to submarines.
“All of the passive sonar has a rich history, as the ladder to higher levels has been built over time,” Ahmed said. “We were part of building some of these steps.”
In 1994, Ahmed was part of the Automated Fleet Towed Array Sonar (AFTAS) team that received an Excellence in the Area of Engineering Award. This proved to be a critical building block for the APB, a process still employed at Division Newport, albeit in a far more advanced iteration.
AFTAS was an advanced development program in which COTS components were utilized to prototype a towed array sonar system with capability that was further advanced than any of the systems in the fleet at the time. The process not only included conventional features like beamforming and broad/narrow band processing, but also incorporated automatic detection, contact clustering and tracking in providing an integrated picture of the acoustic scene.
After APB was stood up, a series of working groups was formed, including the Signal Processing Working Group (SPWG) and Automation Working Group (AWG). The primary responsibility of these multi-disciplinary organizations was to recommend mature technologies that are ready for transition to the program office.
The SPWG, formed by Division Newport’s Cliff Carter and University of Texas Applied Research Laboratory head Clark Penrod in 1998, transitioned new signal processing capabilities into sonar systems. The group conducted technology surveys where developers demonstrated capabilities to a peer-review committee and the working group recommended if the capability should proceed for in-lab evaluation. If it continued in the process, the SPWG was responsible for that further testing.
“I was the first friend of the SPWG and joined the group in 1999. That first nine or 10 years we were running on our toes,” Ahmed said. “The SPWG brought something new to the table and really spearheaded technical innovations in submarine sonar.”
His early years working at Division Newport through his time with SPWG — which ended in 2008 — led to some of Ahmed’s most memorable achievements. He was the first to implement a passive sonar adaptive beamformer (ABF) on a particular array, while he also invented the guard beams that mitigated certain artifacts on passive sonar displays.
“This made a big difference,” Ahmed said. “I’ve also worked on certain passive detectors that are still used by the fleet today.”
Reflecting on the path
Since 2008, Ahmed has built and worked on a number of different detectors, both on submarines and surface ships. Most recently, he has been working on acoustic communications (ACOMMS).
“We pretty much wrote the book on the performance of the passive/active side of the DDG-1000 array, which no one had done before,” Ahmed said. “We brought all these different things I’ve learned over the years. We showed beam patterns and all kinds of stuff on the active/passive array.
“What a technical joyride it has been. All the math underneath the beamformers we built and the stuff we did? It’s nice knowing I have a few thumbprints on some of the products out there.”
Those thumbprints extend well beyond Division Newport, though, as his work, faith and interests have led to travel around the globe.
He has been to Andros Island, Bahamas, on a surface vessel, and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, for sonar testing on submarines, as well as gone on travel with his wife and daughter to Cairo, Dubai, Istanbul and Muscat, Oman.
Ahmed has been an active member of his mosque, Masjid Al-Hoda on URI’s Kingston campus, for about 20 years. He made his Hajj, the pilgrimage to the Kaaba in Mecca, which all Muslims must make at least once in their lifetime, in 2007.
“You need anchors in life. Faith provides one such anchor. A belief you control, that God is looking out for you, that there is some higher authority,” Ahmed said. “Can you imagine how complex this world is that our brains can’t figure everything out? It’s glorious. If everything was known and you were in a perfect world, what are the challenges in it?”
These are lessons Ahmed has passed on to his children, all of whom are now adults. The oldest, Rashid, is a public health researcher, while Abdul-Kareem is finishing his neurosurgery training. Aseef recently finished his training as an eye surgeon at Tufts University, while the youngest, Neelam, is working on her master’s degree in Public Health at Brown University.
“Each has their own path,” Ahmed said.
Over the years, Ahmed has tried to help others on their own path. He mentors, where and when he can, at Division Newport, and his family has tried to help those back in his wife’s native Kenya.
His family funded the creation of a water well in Kilifi, a town 50 miles north of Mombasa (Kenya), to provide local residents with clean drinking water. The sign attached to it has both the Kenyan and American flags on it, a nod to the opportunities both countries have afforded Ahmed and his family. The Ahmeds have visited Kenya several times over the years, safaris and all.
“What really stands out about our nation is the opportunity to excel, meritocracy and, above all, a nation of free people,” Ahmed said. “Americans have internalized freedom. Where else on Earth can a newcomer become a citizen and work for the nation’s Navy? I feel very privileged.”
Ahmed’s recent anniversary of 50 years since he left Uganda has allowed him the opportunity to reflect on how he views the world.
As he often does, he gravitates toward the positive contributions that the British made in Africa, including common law, roads, railroads, schools, medical clinics and power lines. Of course, these positive contributions must be balanced against the history of brutal colonial actions done by the British Empire.
This positive way of thinking is no more representative than when recalling the little bit of gold his family left with when they immigrated to the U.S., and how he feels that physical material has such little value when compared to other aspects of this world.
“Gold is everywhere; you just have to open your mind’s eye. What is gold?” Ahmed said. “Gold could be just going to the ocean and looking at it, observing pounding waves or the open ocean. The gold could be climbing to the top of a tower and looking at the canopy of trees.
“Everyone should spend five to 10 minutes to see nature. I’ll go out at night sometimes, look at the stars for 15 to 20 minutes, and know someone could be looking at the same stars. Just to feel the awe of all this creation is really something.”
A video from the presentation is posted here: https://www.dvidshub.net/video/872999/tuskegee-airman-discusses-his-distinguished-service-part-nuwc-division-newports-black-history-month-celebration
NUWC Newport is the oldest warfare center in the country, tracing its heritage to the Naval Torpedo Station established on Goat Island in Newport Harbor in 1869. Commanded by Capt. Chad Hennings, NUWC Newport maintains major detachments in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Andros Island in the Bahamas, as well as test facilities at Seneca Lake and Fisher’s Island, New York, Leesburg, Florida, and Dodge Pond, Connecticut.
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