Syracuse native Bill Rezak is the first to admit that his family’s history might not be exactly novel. But that certainly doesn’t mean it’s not worth telling.
“It’s not a unique story,” he said, “but it is, indeed, uniquely American.”
Rezak, retired president of Alfred State College, shares his family’s journey in The Arab and the Brit: The Last of the Welcome Immigrants, his new book published by Syracuse University Press. Last week, he was promoting the book in Syracuse, where he conducted a book signing and lecture at Barnes & Noble in DeWitt.
Rezak’s ties to the city run deep. His father’s family immigrated to Syracuse from Palestine in 1913; his mother’s parents came to Canada as indentured servants to escape the poverty of late-19th-century London.
He recalled being asked as a child about his last name, an Ellis Island interpretation of an Arabic name. Given his parents’ journeys, “I’m the quintessential American, so it’s an American name,” he said with a chuckle.
The book came out of Rezak’s desire to investigate his family’s past.
“I just found it all intriguing,” he said.
“I never had a chance to sit down and do anything with it until I retired, so it became my first project in retirement.”
What he found was well worth the effort. He was surprised at the sheer amount of material about his family, including his paternal ancestors, who were highwaymen in the Arabian peninsula. He was able to find out about his mother’s family through Barnardo’s homes—dwellings for poor children—in London. They facilitated his grandparents’ journey to North America and kept extensive documentation.
“They were able to send me reams of material about my grandparents’ records with them, which was fascinating and a real emotional trip for me,” he said.
His family’s history informs his views about today’s immigration debate.
“I don’t think people come to America to get on the dole,” he said. “They come to America because things aren’t good where they live, and they want to work hard and make a contribution and build wealth for their own families.”
“That’s part of America’s success, and it’s troubling to me that there’s such a controversy over immigration today.”