SYRIAN JEWS ARE TRICKLING BACK HOME
By KIM MURPHY TIMES STAFF WRITER
The Los Angeles Times,
November, 22, 1994
Hundreds fled when they could. but life in brooklyn
and france has proven too difficult for some émigrés.
DAMASCUS, Syria--When Khodor Kabariti left them a few months ago,
the vine-covered alleys, redo- lent of stewing onions and sharp
saffron, seemed like passages to the past. But the Jewish quarter
in this ancient city was dying. It was time to end 2,700 years of
Jewish history here in the heart of the Arab world and move on to
new lives. So when Syrian President Hafez Assad agreed last year
to issue exit visas for the country's dwindling population of native
Jews, nearly everyone who could afford them bought tickets and boarded
planes-- Kabariti among them.
"For me, I wanted to find out what kind of life I could live
somewhere else," said the 29-year-old teacher at the Jewish
school in the heart of old Damascus. Kosher meat shops and fine-
tailored clothing stores were put up for sale. Gracious old houses--the
classic Dama- scene townhouses hidden in the city's ancient alleys,
their intricate tile court- yards draped with shade trees and hanging
vines--were passed on to the few friends or family members who stayed
behind, or sold to Muslims.
Over the last 18 months, a population of perhaps 3,800 Syrian Jews
has shrunk to just 300 in Damascus and 100 or so in the northeastern
town of Kamishli. But now, over the last few weeks, the sound of
sad farewells has given way to the noise of welcoming celebrations.
The shutters are opening on closed-up Jewish houses. Slowly but
surely, many of those who left are finding that life in Brooklyn
and France was not what they had hoped for, and they are coming
Late last month, the first two returning families arrived on a
flight from New York. A third arrived the following week, and a
week after that, two more families.
Yousef Jajati, head of the Syrian Jewish community, expects that
many more will be returning over the next several months, reflecting
a growing disillusionment with life abroad and reaffirming ties
to a nation that has been their homeland for more than two millennia.
"Anybody who is coming back, we are taking care of him, helping
him to establish his new life here," said Jajati, a well-to-do
merchant who has no intention of giving up his clothing and import-export
business and leaving Damascus but who hopes to open a second office
in New York. In recent years, the Syrian Jewish community has become
something of a cause celebre, the most visible victims of Syria's
confrontation with Israel and the subject of countless demands for
freedom posed by American, European, Israeli and international Jewish
The Syrian government began easing restrictions on the Jews several
years ago, removing the requirement that their iden- tity cards
carry the word "Musawi," or "follower of Moses";
permitting them to travel outside Damascus; opening up inter- national
trade opportunities for Jewish businessmen and freeing two brothers
imprisoned on charges of trying to emigrate to Israel.
Exit visas were issued only sporadically, though, and often not
granted to entire families, requiring those who left to leave relatives
Then, after last year's summit meeting between Assad and President
Clinton in Geneva, the Syrian government announced that it would
grant an exit visa to any Jew who wanted one. Some restrictions
still applied. For instance, Jews could only take a maximum of $2,500
with them when they left the country. Still, leave they did--by
Over the last year, all but a few kosher groceries shut down. Saturday
Shabbat services sometimes didn't have enough worshipers for prayers.
"I will frankly tell you, they left. And after their departure,
the whole market here was affected. Those products they used to
produce were not to be found--they left a real shock on the neighborhood
here," Jajati said.
Eventually, even Chief Rabbi Avraham Hamra--who had vowed to remain
with his flock until the end--made a celebrated emigration to Israel,
to the vast annoyance of Syrian officials and not a few of the friends
he left behind. More than 1,200 Syrian Jews had already secretly
flocked to Israel before Hamra's much-trumpeted arrival there on
Oct. 19. "The message this proud leader brings with him is
for the remainder of his community in New York to follow him,"
acting Jewish Agency Chairman Yehiel Leket said.
The large majority of Jews leaving Syria have settled in Brooklyn,
where a Syrian Jewish community, now numbering 30,000, has flourished
since the early part of the century, when Jews first fled Syria
under the Turkish occupation. Others have settled in France, joining
substantial communities of Jews from North African countries such
as Morocco. But Jajati said many of the émigrés have
become disillusioned after several months abroad. Jobs have been
hard to find, and social practices in both the United States and
France are often alien to Syrians raised under the relatively
conservative standards of Damascus--albeit one of the most free-wheeling
of Arab cities. The biggest problem facing most of the families
who have decided to return is economic, Jajati said. Many sold their
shops and homes at a fraction of what they were worth, then found
it tremendously more expensive to buy or rent new housing and commercial
space in New York.
"We in this country have security, praise Allah," Jajati
said, adopting a common Muslim expression. "Work is available
for everybody, and here if you get a little money, you can manage
to live on it. I have Syrian friends from our community who went
to New York, but they couldn't get jobs and work.... They had in
mind that they were going to gain much more money, and instead,
many of them have lost everything.
"You must remember," Jajati said, "our people, our
community used to have the best cars, the best shops right in the
center of Damascus. One man had a shop worth 20 million Syrian pounds
[about $450,000]. He sold it for 6 million [about $133,000]. You
must realize his position."
Kabariti sold all his furniture but kept his house when he left
with his wife, 3-year-old daughter, his parents and his sister and
her family four months ago for France. Two weeks ago, he was back
in Damascus, having decided the world outside was not all he had
expected it to be. "I found the social life so different, so
difficult to live in," he said. His mother, Eva, 50, interrupted.
"The nature of life there is so different. We could have only
one room for the whole of the family. And this style of Oriental
life which we are accustomed to, it means you are in good relation
with your neighbors, visiting them, they visit you. This is what
we are raised on. There, we felt like strangers."
The emigrant Jewish community in the town where they lived numbered
less than 100. They helped them financially the first two months,
but then there was no more help, and the family decided to come
Kabariti was greeted by the remaining community, which pledged
to help him buy new furniture for his home. He was offered his old
job as schoolteacher. "The lesson we have learned is that
life at home is always easier than elsewhere," his mother said.
A butcher who returned the same week is being promised a job in
one of the remaining meat shops. Jajati said the community will
do whatever is possible to make sure returnees don't regret their
homecoming. "I am sure now of my words, and I have been assured
also by the Syrian officials," he said. "Everyone who
would like to come back to resume his life, he will be warmly welcomed."