The Yemeni sailors who found a new berth in the Great Lakes

Generations of Arab seafarers have worked on ships traversing the lakes of the cold US north

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For more than a decade, Yemen native Zirjan “Zee” Ahmad spent months at a time on massive ships hauling iron ore and other industrial materials from port to port.

But Mr Ahmad’s long days and silent nights at sea were not spent on the Atlantic or Pacific oceans – or any ocean, in fact. His life as a sailor was spent on North America’s Great Lakes, a collection of large bodies of freshwater between the US and Canada.

After emigrating from Yemen in 1995, he soon followed in his father’s footsteps.

“My dad was a deep-sea sailor for 29 years,” he says. “He didn’t want me to sail because he said: ‘All you see is the sky and water.”

But Mr Ahmad was not to be dissuaded. When he became a sailor in 2003, he was in his early twenties and eager for adventure.

“I saw a lot of people from Yemen talking about becoming a sailor,” he says.

His first ship was called the American Republic, a 194-metre bulk carrier designed to ship iron ore around the Great Lakes.

Life on the water had its ups and downs. In his early days as a sailor, he would catch a ship in Detroit and sail for about 20 days all the way to the city of Duluth on Lake Superior.

Back then, his job was to tie up the boat and lock up its deck hatches, and Mr Ahmad would catch ships intermittently, covering crew shortages and working different roles.

Soon, he figured it made sense to rise through the crew ranks and eventually he racked up enough days at sea to qualify for the rank of boatswain, making him responsible for cargo-handling equipment and a crew of maintenance workers.

“There used to be other Arabic workers on the ship, so we used to get together in groups to pass the time,” he said. “It was good when I was single. After my work, I would go to the deck and look at the sky.”

But after spending three or four months on a ship, the walls would close in, he said.

“You need to get off the ship and rest, to change your life.”

During the winter months, when the Great Lakes froze over, Mr Ahmad would return to Yemen to be with his family.

“On March 3, March 5 the ships would go back to work,” he says.

Having left the sailing life behind several years ago, Mr Ahmad said he doesn’t especially miss it. At times it was dangerous. On one occasion, a docking cable used to tie up a ship to port snapped and damaged his leg.

Today he runs a heating and cooling company in Dearborn and is married with seven children.

“We would have to hammer the ice off the ship, clean everything down and make sure the ship was tied up during storms,” he says. “It was a tough life.”

Mr Ahmad is far from alone. For decades, generations of Yemeni and other Arab sailors have worked on ships traversing the Great Lakes of the cold north, bringing essential raw materials and foodstuffs to businesses across the region in a little-known aspect of Arab-American history.

The Great Lakes region of the 1920s was a hotbed of industry. Much of the economic activity in Detroit, Michigan, was fuelled by manufacturers such as the Ford Motor Company, which was building millions of cars out of its factories in Detroit and nearby Dearborn.

The company owned iron ore and graphite mines in Wisconsin and in the upper Michigan peninsula – materials that were used to build cars in Detroit.

At the time, the company is believed to have faced a major problem: a shortage of sailors to man the ships transporting these raw materials south to Detroit, where the Ford company had a blast furnace.

Yemeni immigrants who had come to Detroit in search of work were reportedly hired en masse due to their skills as sailors acquired in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, where, in the late 1800s, they were regularly employed by the powerful British Navy.

Waves of Yemenis who came to the US in the 1950s and 60s and settled in Michigan went on to work on ships that traversed the Great Lakes during America's postwar industrial boom.

Running along the border dividing the US and Canada, the five Great Lakes are connected to the Atlantic Ocean in the east through the St Lawrence Seaway in Canada. The largest, Lake Superior, is almost as big as the island of Ireland, and violent storms kicking up huge waves are not uncommon.

When the SS Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared from radar during a storm November 10, 1975, in Lake Superior, the crew of the SS William Clay Ford volunteered to take part in a rescue mission, despite the evident dangers.

Aboard the SS William Clay Ford were men by the names of Ahmed B Ali, Mosaed Ali and Ahmad Saleh, sailors who had roots in the Middle East.

Theirs and other names are recorded on a plaque celebrating their bravery that is now on display at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Bell Island in Detroit.

None of the 29 crew aboard the SS Edmund Fitzgerald were ever found, in the worst loss of life recorded on the Great Lakes.

To preserve the unique history of Arab-American sailors on the Great Lakes, the Centre for Arab American Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn launched a project to find and interview Yemeni sailors.

The fruits of that project have been passed on to the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, where in the coming months the research will be archived and presented as a collection online for public access.

“It was Sally Howell’s [of the University of Michigan-Dearborn] motivation for doing this and we are keen to document the current community in Dearborn as a national museum,” says Shatha Najim, community historian at the museum.

“There’s not much representation of the Yemeni community – [helping to change that] through their voice is really impactful.”

Updated: September 29, 2023, 6:00 PM