Our Global Neighborhood: The permanent legacy of one Syrian immigrant in Traverse City

Mar 4, 2020

Steve Jobs, of Apple. Vic Atiyeh, the former governor of Oregon. NPR’s Diane Rehm. Celebrities like Paula Abdul and F. Murray Abraham. They are just a few of the many notable Americans of Syrian descent.


One Syrian-American who made his mark right here in northern Michigan is Assad Al-Shamma, who came to Traverse City to oversee the construction of a new harbor for the Great Lakes Maritime Academy of Northwestern Michigan College (NMC). 

Assad supervising work on the new harbor in Traverse City in 1969.
Credit Assad Al-Shamma

  Today the Maritime Academy is renowned nationally, offering highly sought-after bachelor of science degrees in marine technology and maritime technology, and boasting 100 percent employment rates for program graduates.


In 1969, Assad recollects visiting Traverse City with his wife Sandy and thinking it would be a great place to live if he could find work using his engineering degree. 

Through the yellow pages, he contacted the engineering company of Gourdie-Fraser and met with then-CEO Bill Gourdie who mentioned that the college needed a harbor built for a new Maritime Academy.


“Is this something you can do?” asked Gourdie. While Assad had never done anything like this before, he responded, “yes, we’ll figure it out.”


Three days later Gourdie called Assad with the news that NMC gave him the job. Assad immediately moved to Traverse City and began work that would include both designing and supervising the new harbor. 

Great Lakes Maritime Academy aerial view which shows the harbor today.
Credit David Dalquist

Following that, Assad became a permanent part of the northern Michigan scene, founding Bay Construction Company and, with his wife, raising two sons who attended area schools.


During his time in the U.S., Assad had ample opportunities to help break stereotypes about “what an Arab is (and) what a Syrian is. “


“I was amazed at times with some folks asking questions like, do you have showers in Syria? Yes, yes!”, he would answer with a smile noting that Syria had all modern conveniences.


In fact, Assad takes pleasure explaining that he grew up in Damascus, one of the oldest capital cities in the world (7,000-plus years) that has modern shopping malls but also narrow streets of cobblestone and Roman columns on many corners. 

Assad with U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, IAF event
Credit Chris Doyal

He notes that Syria is a melting pot of ethnicities and religions and that he had friends who were Muslims, Kurds, Christians, Armenians and Jews.


While Syria had numerous coups while Assad was growing up, it was nothing like the ongoing multi-sided civil war that has destroyed much of the country since 2011 and led to the displacement of half of Syria’s population.


In 2017, the U.S. imposed a travel ban, earlier referred to as a Muslim ban, barring citizens from seven countries, including Syria. When news broke of these new restrictions, Assad posted a picture on Facebook of Steve Jobs and Dr. Michael Debakey, a Syrian-American Congressional Medal of Honor awardee, to make the point that “we are hurting ourselves.”


Assad, second from left, Sandy and their two sons at their 50th wedding anniversary.
Credit Assad Al-Shamma

“Why do people want to come to America? It’s our founding fathers and what they have established in the Constitution. In the concept of men created equal in the bill of rights. This is what the world loves about us and is where our strength is,” he said.


Listen to more of Assad Al-Shamma’s story as he talks with IPR’s Kendra Carr.