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The untold history of Yemeni sailors on the Great Lakes

Our state is home to the nation's largest population of Yemeni Americans. But what attracted Yemeni immigrants to Michigan in the first place?

For many, the driver was economic opportunity, particularly the kind that could be found while sailing the Great Lakes.

Sally Howell is an associate professor of history at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, where she directs the Center for Arab American Studies. Gallal Albaneh is Yemeni-American and graduated from the Great Lakes Maritime Academy a year ago.

Howell says that seafaring has a long and storied history in Yemen, but that it’s difficult to establish a singular year when Yemeni immigration to the United States began. Her class is working on a public history project that seeks to reveal some of the unknown details of this story.

Her students started by conducting interviews with Yemeni sailors, many of whom came to America in the 1950s.

“When they came to America, they did not have good English skills. And at the time, if you wanted to work for Henry Ford or GM or any of the Big Three, you needed to be able to speak English or you couldn’t get hired on the line,” Howell said. “But they could get hired on the ships.”

During that time, Howell says that Yemen was experiencing a major lack of economic and educational opportunities, which prompted its citizens to search for those opportunities elsewhere.

“People needed work, they needed to support their families. Once they started coming to America, they found that, even though they were not in high-income jobs here in America, they could send money home,” Howell said.

Today, Yemeni-Americans may choose a career on the high seas for a range of reasons. Albaneh says that several important adults in his life were sailors, including one friend of the family who encouraged him to enroll in the Great Lakes Maritime Academy. 

There, he earned a degree in Maritime Engineering and became a Third Assistant Engineer. 

Howell says that the goal of her class’s project is to highlight the stories of Yemeni-American sailors like Albaneh, and those that came before him, by adding to the collection at the Arab-American National Museum in Dearborn.

“We’re going to make sure that they have a part of their museum that tells the story of Yemenis on the Great Lakes because they have been a part of the economy of this region for at least 70 years,” Howell said.

Click through the slideshow above to learn more about Gallal Albaneh’s sailing experience.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas. 

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