As a child, Bill Rezak often was questioned about the origin of his last name.
"And I would always answer that my father was Palestinian and my mother was British," Rezak said. "And that I’m the quintessential American in a country of immigrants."
Rezak, a Hall County resident, has always been intrigued by the very different worlds from which his ancestors came. His mother’s parents were sent from Great Britain to Canada alone at the ages of 10 and 16 to work as indentured servants. Those on his father’s side of the family were highwaymen on the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th century. They sparred unsuccessfully with the Ottoman Turks and escaped to America.
He said he was always intrigued by family lore from both sides. But it wasn’t until he started approaching retirement age that he became truly excited about the old stories.
After retiring as president of Alfred State College in New York, 10 years ago, Rezak began the "labor of love" that led to his new book, "The Arab and the Brit: The Last of the Welcome Immigrants."
Rezak said the inspiration to write the book came from a desire to preserve his family’s unique heritage and provide insight for his own grandchildren and coming generations.
"The further you get away from the boat that the folks came in on, the less gets carried forward," Rezak said.
Knowing how quickly history can be lost the further away it gets, Rezak began researching his own history by interviewing his parents. He said he collected enough notes to fill an old cardboard box. From there, he searched genealogical records and was inspired to find that many details of his family’s journey to the new world were preserved.
Dr. Bernardo’s Home, a shelter for destitute children in London from where his maternal grandparents came, kept detailed records including photos and correspondence from his young grandparents.
"They just had an incredible amount of ledger notes that gave me insight into how my grandfather and grandmother were faring," Rezak said. "That was hugely enlightening and inspiring to become aware of and write about."
The Arab side of his family however, didn’t have as much written history.
"Most of that came from family lore, which was rich," Rezak said. "There was not as much written down but there was a ton of stories that my grandmother used to tell me and my father."
Where there were gaps in the saga, Rezak said he tried to take into account what was happening in the world. The story is told against the backdrop of two world wars and an emerging modern Middle East.
But rather than writing the history as a typical narrative, Rezak’s story reads like a novel.
"It’s a little bit of an unusual story and I decided I didn’t want to just write a narrative. I wanted to create some dialogue," Rezak said. "I tried to imagine myself in the situations that my parents and grandparents were in as they came to this country, and write it in their perspectives."
While there is an element of adventure in moving to a new country, the story can be heartbreaking at times. Rezak said his father could never tell him about the last time he saw his grandfather without becoming emotional.
His father was 4 years old, and while waiting for the ship to set sail, he sat on his grandfather’s knee. His grandfather, with tears running down his face, explained to the child that he was sad because he was never going to see him again.
His father’s memory of that last moment together left an imprint on Rezak.
"I have a grandchild now and I can’t imagine not ever seeing her again," Rezak said. "But at that time, 100 years ago this summer, that’s what moving halfway around the world meant. It was cutting all the ties with loved ones and family."
Rezak said writing the book has given him an appreciation for what his family did to get him the life he leads today.
"It gave me an appreciation for the fact that when the chips are down and you have to do difficult things, well, they can be done," Rezak said. "You just have to suck it up and do what’s necessary."
The book has been on the market since February and has already sold out on Amazon.com. Copies of the book can be purchased for $24.95 on the publisher’s website, www.syracuse
universitypress.syr.edu/fall-2012/arab-brit.html. Copies are expected to be available at Books-a-Million in the coming months.
The book has already received some positive reviews.
It has been called "an epic adventure of an immigrant family arriving in a strange land" by Edward Coll, President Emeritus of Alfred University.
"Rezak recreates, in novel form, detailed genealogical accounts and emigrations by his Arab and British forebears who share values of ambition, hard work, devotion to family and education," said James A. Jacobs, author of "Transgressions: A Novel."
Rezak said the novel has a real relevance to the issues of immigration the country is facing today. Most of the people who are coming to the U.S. bring the same hopes and ambitions his own family did a century ago.
He said that as a nation of immigrants, it saddens him that the country is having trouble dealing with the issue of immigration.
"The fact that we are a nation of immigrants, everybody has a similar story somewhere," Rezak said. "Whether it’s known to them or not. If anything, I hope this book piques people’s interest to do some research on their own families."