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The Arab and the Brit

The Last of the Welcome Immigrants

by Bill Rezak

Publication Year: 2012

Born of a Palestinian father and British mother, Bill Rezak has always been intrigued by the different worlds his parents came from. His father’s ancestors were highwaymen on the Arabian Peninsula in the eighteenth century. They sparred unsuccessfully with ruling Ottoman Turks and escaped with their family to America. His mother’s parents were sent to Canada from Great Britain into indentured servitude as children separate­ly and alone at the ages of 10 and 16. They worked off their servitude, met, married and moved to New York State. In The Arab and the Brit, a memoir that spans multiple generations and countries, Rezak traces the remarkable lives of his ancestors. Narrating their experiences against the backdrop of two World Wars and an emerging modern Middle East, the author gives readers a textured and vivid immigrant story. Rezak recalls his paternal grandmother apprehending would-be Russian saboteurs during World War One, his grandfather’s time at Dr. Bernardo’s home, a shelter for destitute children, and his father’s work with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association following the war. Told with humor and captivating detail, The Arab and the Brit, chronicles the trials and triumphs of one family’s struggle to succeed in the New World.

Published by: Syracuse University Press


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pp. 1-2

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

For years, when asked my nationality, I responded that my father was Palestinian, my mother was British, and I am American. My American family and I would not exist were it not for my paternal grandmother’s wisdom, maturity, tenacity, strength of character...


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pp. xv-xvi

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1 Nazareth

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pp. 1-7

The leaky little lighter began to row from the wharf in the Arab port of Haifa into the harbor. A small rusty freighter lay at anchor a few hundred yards away. She had a single smoke stack and was about two hundred feet in length...

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2 Bill Curnick and Barnardo’s Home

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pp. 8-22

The Industrial Revolution in the second half of the nineteenth century accelerated the migration of the population in Great Britain from the countryside to the cities, especially London. The result of this movement was the development of horrific slums and cramped row housing...

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3 Habeeb and the Ottoman Turks

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pp. 23-31

Radia and Habeeb carved out a satisfactory life together, if a bit austere. Radia resented her husband’s wanderlust but could not complain about the income he provided. The tailoring business brought in plenty of money, but there were the heavy Ottoman taxes and Habeeb’s...

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4 Canada

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pp. 32-39

Bill and his Barnardo’s mates sailed for Canada on June 14, 1886. He had turned ten just three weeks earlier. His pine trunk had served as his dresser at Barnardo’s. Now it was packed again for the trip to Canada. Barnardo’s dressed Bill in a nice-looking wool suit, white shirt, and necktie for the departure. He had a white...

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5 Radia and Habeeb’s Heritage

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pp. 40-46

Two days after the raid on the Ottoman Turks, Sef-Sef’s battered body was dumped not in front of his own home in Madaba, but rather in front of the house of Khouri Eassa’s daughter, Radia, and her husband, Habeeb, in Nazareth. Khouri Eassa was quick to point out...

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6 Life on the St. Lawrence River

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pp. 47-56

If you are going to live along the St. Lawrence River, you had better like winter. The cold, bitter wind blitzes from the west across the Great Lakes like a giant razor blade, picking up speed and moisture as it goes. When this cloudy gray freight train gets east of the lakes, it dumps upward...

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7 America?

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pp. 57-71

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the United States was encouraging immigrants from all over the world to relocate to America. The nation’s manufacturing base was expanding exponentially, and it needed a huge workforce. Good jobs that paid well were available...

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8 Bill’s Family Comes to Canada

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pp. 72-76

In 1893, when Bill was seventeen, Aunty and Uncle decided that it was time for him to begin to build his own fortune. One evening after one of Aunty’s delicious dinners, Uncle Levius approached him. “Bill, ya’ve been wid us fer seven years, ahe?...

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9 The Rizks’ Journey to America

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pp. 77-86

As Radia prepared their area of the tramp steamer’s hold for the trip, Habeeb tried not to lose the boys as they galloped around the ship. Daoud wanted to see what was below decks. He led N’cola down steep steel ladder/stairs with grating that they could look right through as step...

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10 Florence Elsie Belcher

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pp. 87-99

Up until Bill Curnick had brought his family to the New World, he hadn’t given much thought to finding a spouse. After he and the rest of the Curnicks moved to Watertown and the New York Central Railway, he began to be more aware of his age and the young women around him...

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11 Ellis Island and Beyond

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pp. 100-112

N’cola would always remember clearly, the chaos that was Ellis Island, even though he was only four years old at the time he experienced it. It was a bit less than thirty acres in size. Every member of every family was required to go ashore and meet with immigration officials. Radia...

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12 Florence and Bill

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pp. 113-122

On July 24, 1905, eighteen-year-old Florence wrote to Mrs. Owen at Barnardo’s Canada office, indicating she had been working very hard with Mrs. Browse. She indicated that she knew she needed to be successful there and that she had caused problems in her past assignments...

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13 Life in Syracuse

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pp. 123-130

Radia’s will to succeed was enormous. She pushed herself relentlessly to be as good a mother and spouse and to sell as many of her wares as she could. She went out in all sorts of weather (which in Syracuse in the winter can be especially fierce) to contact prospects and deliver lace...

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14 The Curnicks of America

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pp. 131-147

Bill made a comfortable, if not extravagant, living working for the railroad. The Curnicks lived near the New York Central Railway yards in Watertown. Railroad workers were expected to live close by so they could be called in a hurry if needed for service. There were no telephones...

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15 Finally Another Rizk

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pp. 148-159

The year 1919 was a momentous one for the Rezaks. Radia and Habeeb had been trying for quite some time to have another child. Radia was approaching forty, and they knew that her childbearing years were limited. Still, nothing developed. Just before his tenth birthday on February...

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16 Polly and Nick

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pp. 160-167

Both the Curnicks and the Rezaks understood that education was the pathway to a better life. During her senior year at Syracuse, Polly was active in the Sociology Club, which brought in speakers with special expertise for occasional lectures, provided students with access...

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17 St. Elias Church and the Other Rezaks

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pp. 168-182

Radia and Habeeb had been in America for thirteen years before an opportunity to establish an Arabic Eastern Orthodox Christian church where they lived presented itself. For years, they had attended the occasional celebration of the Eastern Orthodox liturgy by circuit priests...

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18 Nick Overseas

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pp. 183-212

As mentioned earlier, UNRRA had recognized the fact that Nick was fluent in Arabic and English. He had spent his time in Washington helping to organize UNRRA. It was now time to contribute where the rubber met the road. Nick’s UNRRA travel authorization...

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19 The Yugoslav Rezaks

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pp. 213-220

Nick and his UNRRA colleagues continued their efforts to rebuild the war-torn societies of Europe. This task became much easier after the war was over. By early 1946, plans had been laid and work was in progress toward returning the ravaged nations to prosperity...

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20 Home to Syracuse

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pp. 221-229

By the early 1940s, it had been more than thirty years since Habeeb, Radia, Daoud (Dave), and N’cola (Nick) had left the old country. Still, those left behind were not forgotten. Letters were regularly exchanged and eagerly awaited. They were sealed with a drop of wax, and personalized...

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pp. 230-231

In 1951, Radia, age seventy-one, was diagnosed with liver cancer. Cancer has raised its ugly head frequently in the Rezak family. Radia’s last weeks were not pretty. She was in a great deal of pain, but, consistent with her character, she never complained. She died in Crouse-Irving Hospital...

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pp. 232-236

Between about 1890 and 1924, more than 20 million immigrants entered the United States via Ellis Island in New York City Harbor. Almost half of the people living in America today (about 150 million of us) trace their heritage through this portal. That’s more than 1,600 immigrants processed...


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pp. 237-248


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pp. 249-269

Back Cover

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pp. 270-271

E-ISBN-13: 9780815652014
E-ISBN-10: 0815652011
Print-ISBN-13: 9780815609742
Print-ISBN-10: 0815609744

Page Count: 248
Illustrations: 12 black and white illustrations
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Rezak, Bill -- Family.
  • Palestinian Americans -- Biography.
  • British Americans -- Biography.
  • Immigrants -- United States -- Biography.
  • Indentured servants -- Canada -- Biography.
  • Palestine -- Biography.
  • England -- Biography.
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