The Syrian Jewish Migration of the 1990s: A Modern Exodus

The plane landed. I didn’t come with really anything, just a small suitcase… Then I feel somebody just coming and grabbing me and just hugging me. Then when I turn around, it was my father and my mom and my brother [whom I had not seen in two years] were there in the airport.

Meyer Lati, April 2020

The Syrian Jewish migration of 1992 and 1994 to the United States was a dramatic and little-known part of history. The experiences of four Syrian Jewish refugees shine a light on a fascinating historical event. My goal was to investigate what life as a Jew was like in Syria and how coming to America has affected the lives of these immigrants. A strong and tight-knit community existed in Syria, and a similarly strong and supportive community in Brooklyn opened the door to emigration and helped the immigrants make new lives for themselves.

This information was gathered through a series of oral history interviews from 2019-20 with Syrian Jews who immigrated to America in 1992 (one interviewee came in 1987; his story is used as a “control”). The four subjects are of different ages and genders. The first subject was Meyer Lati, a man who came to America from Damascus at seven years old in 1987; he is now a businessman. The second interviewee, Mussa Saada, came to America from Damascus at the age of 12 in 1992 and now works in the wholesale business. The third interview was with a woman who, for the sake of her requested privacy, will be called V.C.. She came to America from Aleppo in the 1992 emigration at the age of 22 and is now a mother of four. The final subject was Nouriel Zalta, who arrived in America in 1992 at the age of 18 and is now a physician. The stories of these four individuals teach us about the power of community and a miraculous and gripping event that deserves to be known more widely.

Jewish people have lived in Syria since the time of King David, approximately 3000 years ago. Syrian Jews primarily resided in the two cultural and economic centers of the country, Aleppo and Damascus. The community doubled in size during the Spanish Inquisition due to the Jews being kicked out of Spain. The community continued to thrive as a self-contained, deeply religious group. Fast forwarding a few hundred years into the future, many Jews left Syria before the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century; four of my great grandparents came to America from Syria during this time.

After the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, the Jews in Syria were oppressed by the government and not allowed to leave the country. In 1971, the brutal dictator, Hafez Al Assad, took power. Under his rule, the horrible treatment of the Jews continued: Jews were still not allowed to leave the country, there were occasional acts of violence, Jews were imprisoned, and all Jews were constantly under onerous surveillance by the government. Rarely, a Jewish person or a family would escape (one of my interviews is with a man who escaped before Jews were allowed to leave). To try to save the remaining 4,000 Jews from oppression, the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews (CRSJ) was created in 1989 by members of the Brooklyn Syrian Jewish Community. The CRSJ began a political campaign to influence the US and other governments to pressure Syria to let the Jews leave the country.

As if by a miracle, the Syrian government suddenly allowed all Jews to leave in 1992. In that year alone, 2,500 of the 4,000 Jews applied for visas and passports and came to Brooklyn. When President Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, Syria closed the border once again in an attempt to renegotiate with the new administration. In 1994, the remaining 1,500 Jews were allowed to leave. By the end of this turbulent story, there were only approximately 50 Jews left in Syria. The transplanted Syrian Jewish community has been thriving in the United States ever since. These are the stories of four Syrian Jews who came to America during this period.

Life as a Jew in Syria

My analysis begins with what life was like in Syria as a Jewish person. Three of my interviewees lived in Damascus, and one in Aleppo (in Arabic, Halab). As children and young adults, all my subjects had the general consensus that life as a Jew was a relatively normal life. Meyer Lati, who lived in Damascus as a child, explained how life was generally calm and enjoyable:

So I lived in the Jewish ghetto. In Arabic it’s called Hart Yahud and it wasn’t only Jews. It was Jews and Muslim and Christians. And to be honest with you, they all lived a happy life. They all lived together. And they all came to each other’s houses. They all ate from the same food… So we lived in something called a “housh”. A housh means a few apartments in one house. And everybody with their family lived in one room. No, I think one Muslim, one Christian. And another neighbor that was Jewish and us. We were in one house, so we shared one kitchen and we shared one bathroom and everybody had one room.

Lati’s family was not very wealthy, so he lived in a housh, which is comparable to a tenement apartment. Another Damascus resident, Mussa Saada, was wealthier than Lati, but had the same impression that life was enjoyable in Syria: “Living was beautiful. We lived in a gorgeous house. My father owned a glass factory.” Clearly, there was a socioeconomic divide among the Jewish population in Damascus. In similarity with Lati, Nouriel remembers living in a house with multiple families as a child; Nouriel claimed that most Jewish families were in the middle and lower middle class, but there were some wealthy businessmen like Saada’s father. Saada explained that there were many Jewish doctors and merchants in Damascus. In both Damascus and Aleppo, most Jews worked as artisans or businessmen. Jews worked in most fields: “In Damascus, their capital, the Jews were very educated. They were doctors, lawyers, engineers, businessmen,” claimed Mussa Saada. V.C., who lived in Aleppo as a young adult and raised four kids, described life as peaceful and happy: “For me I didn’t have a bad experience. I was happy, I had nice house with four kids.”

My interviewees explained some of the nuances of life in Syria. Regarding the community, all of the interviewed immigrants agreed that there was an extremely strong sense of community in the Syrian Jewish population. According to Meyer Lati, Damascus’s Jewish community was bonded together by the synagogue: “Yes it was a very tight community. A very small community, but there were a lot of Jews. If I’m not mistaken, I think somebody told me there were 26 shuls [synagogues]… Everybody went to shul. If you were religious or non-religious, everybody went to shul on Shabbat.” Meyer later went on to explain that this sense of community is what made life enjoyable. V.C. explained that Aleppo had far fewer synagogues: “There were two, but one of them nobody was praying there. That’s an old one.” She mentioned that even though there were not many synagogues, the community was still very religious. Each of my subjects’ families were very large and started early; V.C. had four kids by the time she was 23.

The educational system in Syria had many options for different students. Each of the interviewees had slightly different educational experiences. Meyer Lati explained how school in Damascus (in the 1980s) was very rigorous, and you would be beaten if you misbehaved. He mentioned that the curriculum was significantly more advanced than in the American lower school education: “A kid back then in third grade knew the same math that a kid in seventh grade would know over here.” Mussa Saada explained how he went to a Yeshiva (school for Jewish studies), and the curriculum was less academically intense but heavily focused on religious education. Mr. Zalta gave unique insight into how education for Jews changed in the later grades: once he entered high school, he was the only Jewish student because he didn’t attend a Yeshiva.

Zalta’s time in high school brings us to inter-religious relations in Syria. I received some mixed messages about the relationship of Jewish citizens with Muslim and Christian citizens. Zalta recalled that he had a mostly positive experience going to school as the only Jewish person:

I was the only Jewish kid [in] my class. For the most part they knew I was Jewish. But they were not always necessarily very, I don’t know, the word would be nice to me. But they built their fence where they wouldn’t cross it necessarily. It’s not like I had many friends but the few friends that I had, they treated me nicely and the other ones also treated me overall okay…some encounters whenever things were tense when you would talk about politics or you talk about anything that pertained to Israel. Or anything down those lines you do feel the tension. No action was necessarily taken against me personally.

He would argue with his Muslim peers about political issues involving Israel, but the arguments were always respectful. Meyer Lati saw the relationship between Jews, Muslims, and Christians as completely positive; he remembers that people of these three religions would go to each other’s houses and be friendly to each other. Though some Americans might believe that Jews and Muslims in the Middle East have always been in constant conflict, the experiences of Zalta and Lati show this is simply not the case.

Although my interview subjects described their lives as relatively normal, they acknowledged that the government had an oppressive hold on them. The oppressive actions of the government were mostly related to Assad’s anti-emigration policies. The policies prevented Jews from leaving Syria permanently. Various measures were in place to make sure no Jews could permanently escape. One policy was that not every member of a family was allowed to leave the country; this was instituted so the members leaving would have an incentive to come back. If a Jew wanted to leave the country, he or she had to explain to the government why he or she were temporarily leaving. Nouriel Zalta explained some of the nuances of the policy very well:

The only way I can leave prior to ’92 is by making a financial deposit that I would only get back if I come back. That’s number one. Number two, is I cannot leave with my whole family. So it was limited… At the end of the day, you cannot leave and you have almost an obligation to come back because you have family there.

This policy greatly affected the life of Meyer Lati growing up. His father, and sometimes his mother and siblings, would go on business trips to Europe, but they would have to leave him behind with his uncle and grandparents due to the policy. In 1985, Meyer Lati would begin a two-year separation from his immediate family due to this cruel policy. His father had Hodgkin’s disease, and needed to go to America to be treated. His family went to America but left him behind because his brother was three and needed to be with his parents. Another policy banned Jews from travelling to Israel in fear that they would join the Israeli army and fight Syria, or that they would thrive in Israel and not return.

V.C. noted that if one tried to escape Aleppo, he or she would be harshly punished: “Some people did [try to escape]… In Aleppo, whoever tried to escape, they catch them, they give them very hard time in jail, they hit them.” She went on to tell a chilling story about the anti-emigration laws. The seven children of V.C.’s mother-in-law managed to leave Aleppo and live in Israel. Her dream was to see her family again, and finally the Syrian government allowed her to get a passport. But when the government found out she was planning on leaving permanently, they took away her passport. When her children ended up getting married, she was unable to see their marriages and live her dream of being with her grandchildren.

The government also invaded the privacy of Jewish residents by constantly spying on them to make sure they were not planning to leave. Assad’s secret police, the Mukharabat, horribly treated the Jews of Damascus and Aleppo. If a Jewish citizen went to Israel temporarily or attempted to permanently leave, the Mukhabarat would locate them and their family and jail them. Meyer Lati’s family was affected by the Mukhabarat’s brutal action. Upon finding out that Meyer Lati’s father went to Israel temporarily, the Mukhabarat captured Lati’s uncle and tortured him for weeks. In the 1970s, Meyer Lati’s aunts tried to escape Syria; this resulted in Meyer’s uncle, father, and grandfather being jailed (his grandfather was 75). In jail, his elderly grandfather was tortured and shackled to a wall for days at a time. When asked if Jews spoke out against the oppression, Mussa Saada responded: “You had no rights, so you can’t speak up… Nobody speaks up because the … It’s not a democracy. It’s a dictatorship. Nobody, even Muslims couldn’t speak up against the government. We were all fed propaganda over in school, how our president is the best.”

Moreover, despite the strong religious scene in both major cities, the government prohibited Jews from wearing kippot (yarmulkes) in public. Meyer Lati explained that there were setbacks with being Jewish in Syria that limited freedoms, but if you complied with the regime, you would live a relatively normal life: “You couldn’t go out with your tallit and tefillin and tzitzit (religious garments), for one thing. That was one setback for the Jews. But I’ll tell you again, if you paid your taxes … Not really taxes, but if you put … if you bribed the government officials with whatever you needed to bribe, you were living a very comfortable life.” My interviewees all gave me the impression that this lack of freedom along with government propaganda made them fearful.

The Exodus

This life in Syria, with its positive and negative aspects, would be left behind by my interviewees (except for Meyer Lati, who immigrated earlier) in 1992. The story of the three immigrants that left in this migration all match up in how they found out and how they left. Almost biblically, on the seventh night of Passover (Pesach) the news of a policy change hit the Jewish community. Mussa Saada supplies a detailed explanation of how the events unfolded for the Damascus Jewish community and how he personally found out:

I remember it very vividly. It was actually Pesach, the seventh day of Pesach. And the seventh day of Pesach always has a different meaning to me, because I remember it as a kid… Around three o’clock in the afternoon, Rabbi Hamra, the rabbi of the community was surprised by jeeps, military jeeps outside his house. And they asked him to gather what’s called the community members of his … the community members of the Jewish community, you have a meeting with the President now. They were waiting for him outside. And they asked him to gather community members of the Jewish community, you have a meeting with the President now. They were waiting for him outside. So, he called up the four or five people that were on the committee. One of them is my uncle, and they didn’t know what it was… So, I remember as a kid, it was like only three hours before Shabbat. The news came very quickly that the Jews, that President Assad is going to be all meeting with the Jewish community in Damascus. So, as a kid, we all rushed to shul. We all rushed to the main shul… We all somehow ended up in that big shul, because we want to know what’s going on… And I remember as a kid, Rabbi Hamra’s brother and other rabbis that made all the kids, because, sing … say to Elohim (God in Hebrew) loud. I was one of the kids, and I remember the rabbi saying, “Loud, loud, loud, I want the heavens to hear you.” … And Pesach, it was exactly like when the Jews left Egypt, the rabbi, they brought them back. The Jeeps came back to the Jewish school there, maybe minutes before Shabbat… [Rabbi Hamra] said, I just had a meeting with the president of Syria and he’s allowing us to leave. He’s allowing all of us to … There was [sic] people crying, singing…I would never forget it.

What makes this story so magical is the fact that it is eerily similar to the story of how the Jews found out they would escape Egypt in the Bible. V.C. described how shocked everyone in Aleppo was when they found out they could leave:  “Everyone didn’t believe it, it’s crazy. Everyone don’t know what to do.”     

Leaving itself turned out to be less dramatic. Unlike the Bible, there was no grand escape, and Syrian Jews left over a series of months. Jews from both Aleppo and Damascus applied for passports and visas, bribes were paid, airplane tickets materialized, and they left. Nouriel Zalta explains how his family left:

Basically we applied for passport, we got the visa to the States, which was facilitated on the end of the United States. We were granted the visa and the family didn’t leave all at the same time, it just happened that way. I don’t recall why, but half of my family left, I think it was sometime in August and the other half left in September. We just got on the plane and to the States.

Zalta’s story is similar to the stories of most all Jews who left in the migration. Some families were unable to leave at the same time due to normal issues with visas that immigrants commonly face. Despite Zalta’s family’s ease of emigration, many families, such as V.C.’s, experienced issues with leaving:

But then they don’t give it to you easy, the passport. You have to give money a lot to the government to give you the passport. Everybody takes so much money from us. They don’t let us sell our houses, our stuff. They don’t let us do anything. We just have to leave with our clothes, belonging in the house, whatever we can take with us. Otherwise, everything we left behind.

Meyer Lati’s story was different from the others. He did not leave in 1992 or 1994, but in September of 1987. He was separated from his family for two years because they were in America. But when a United States congressman got involved, he was able to escape:

So for two years they’re trying to get me out. I remember there was Stephen Solarz [U.S. Congressman representing Brooklyn], don’t know if you’ve heard of him? I think he was a Senator or one of the top officials over here? He came to Syria and he intervened also on my behalf… There was another person, Stephen Shalom, back then. So both of them came to Syria actually and spoke with officials and I … From what my father told me, he got a phone call from my uncle saying that they gave the permission for Meyer to leave.

Arrival

Meyer Lati went on to explain the dramatic and emotional story of his reunion with his family. At the airport, Lati’s uncle asked a random Syrian lady coming to America if she could stay with Meyer (he was seven). She agreed and they traveled together. The moment Mr. Lati got off the plane was one he will never forget:

The plane landed. From what I can recall is, I had my stuff. I didn’t come with really anything, just a small suitcase. So … It’s getting a little emotional. So what happened was, as I got to the doors … You know, the automatic doors when they open up? I was looking back to see where this lady was and then I feel somebody just coming and grabbing me and just hugging me. Then when I turn around, it was my father and my mom and my brother were there in the airport alone with my aunt; my aunt that lived over here in the United States back then, along with their friends.

Moving to America changed the lives of the Syrian Jewish immigrants forever. Not only was there a new sense of freedom, but there was an opportunity to enter into the thriving, tight-knit, and welcoming community of Syrian Jews in Brooklyn, New York. Mussa Saada described how  fearful the immigrants were as a whole about leaving their previous lives in Syria: “Now you go into a new country you don’t know nothing about it? You know? There was excitement and a lot of panic, especially in the adults more than the kids.” This sentiment was shared by all of my interview subjects. Nouriel Zalta had a more fearful experience without family in America:

The uncertainty was always a factor in the beginning for years. You are trying to figure it out, let’s say for me, I’m coming into a whole new educational system. I didn’t know what college is. I didn’t know what it means to be in college and why four years. And what do I need to do so that I can get to the next step of being in medical school, et cetera. So, all these things you’re coming in and you are kind of lost. You don’t know where it starts from? What next steps are? In a way I don’t if that’s scary, but it’s very uncertain.

V.C. and her family had an easier time integrating into American life than others because she had close relatives in America:

So when I came here, I have family here. So I went to their house, they helped me find the rental house and my husband found a job, but still thanked God. He worked. We have a lot of friends and family here before us. So we didn’t have hard time. For some people, I know that they got more hard time. They couldn’t find a job easy.

V.C. also experienced some of the challenges regarding the uncertainty of moving, despite her easier adjustment:

Wasn’t easy because it’s a change. I used to be very comfortable in Aleppo. We have money. I have help with my kids, I have four kids here. No, help. It’s a new life, wasn’t easy, but thank God, the community had all our friends was around us and we make it, thank God.

Despite the shared fears of the immigrants, the Brooklyn Syrian Jewish community took on great responsibility in helping the immigrants into their new lives. Some families struggled more than others with integration. A struggle that most immigrants faced was adapting to a new language. All of my interviewees except Nouriel had no knowledge of English. But thankfully, the community members in Brooklyn supplied the immigrants with resources like NYANA (New York Association for New Americans), which taught English to immigrants and helped immigrants become citizens. Another organization, Sephardic Bikur Holim, helped the Syrian Jewish immigrants with adjusting to American life; they provided homes, school enrollment and tuition, food, and other necessary resources. Additionally, Jewish schools in Brooklyn like Magen David Yeshivah taught English to the Syrians. For those who immigrated as children and teenagers, the language barrier initially inhibited their ability to make friends—but soon after their arrival, they found their crowds.

Additionally, the community, through its organization CRSJ (Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews), worked to influence the US and other governments to force the Syrian government to free the Jews. Through political lobbying and mobilizing other Jewish organizations, CRSJ urged the US government to make freeing the Jews an important part of our foreign policy with Syria. They held demonstrations and attempted to educate the public on the plight of the Syrian Jews. The CRSJ also made sure to enlist all politicians, both from America and elsewhere, who were visiting Syria to bring up the Jews to Syrian officials. The community-run CRSJ was a key part of this modern day exodus.

The Brooklyn Syrian Jewish community also supported the immigrants by getting them jobs and contacts and forming lasting friendships. All of the interview subjects agree that the community, not just the organizations, embraced them and allowed them to thrive. Mussa Saada claimed that “the community was phenomenal when the Jews came.” V.C. was immensely thankful for the community’s embrace: “Thank God, the community had all our friends was around us and we make it, thank God.” Nouriel Zalta went into depth about how the existing American community went to great lengths to help all Syrian immigrants get their lives on track:

The community was very, very welcoming. The existing Syrian community was definitely very helpful. They facilitated a lot of the steps including again, the financial part. I think it was a huge part for everybody. Maybe most of us I don’t know about all of us and the housing part also they facilitated. The Bikur Holim played a big role also in addition to the NYANA. But beyond that also it went to a point with NYANA facilitating not only the educational part from the language point of view. But also the facilitation of getting your papers in order to get citizenship, et cetera. So they definitely were a huge help and I don’t think anybody could have done it without such help with all honesty.

The meaningful actions and support of the Brooklyn Syrian Jewish community has allowed the immigrants to thrive in what they are now happy to call their home. To this day, the Syrian Jewish community helps those in need in the community. “And don’t get me wrong still now the community are great,” V.C. said. “Whenever you need help, there is people behind.”

Life After

Life in America allowed each immigrant to pursue their own paths. Meyer Lati, with the help of his father, went into the men’s wear business and now has a business of his own. He eventually married and had eight children. Mussa Saada briefly went to Yeshiva University but then left to help his father’s business. He is also a hazan (cantor).  He eventually ventured into the wholesale business and is now a successful businessman with three kids. V.C.’s husband worked his way up the job ladder and is now a high ranking businessman. V.C. has since been raising her children, who are now adults. And finally, Nouriel Zalta went to medical school, trained at Lenox Hill Hospital, and is now an attending physician at North Shore LIJ Hospital. He met his wife and now has three children. All of the immigrants I interviewed are still devoutly religious Jews.

In the late 1980s, after the Soviet Union fell and Syria was left without its main patron, a smart and dedicated group of activists saw an opportunity. There was an amenable U.S. political climate, and a strong community with open arms was ready to absorb new members. Through what can only be described as a perfect storm, these events and circumstances collectively enabled one of the great stories in Jewish history. After 3,000 years of rich culture and history and decades of oppression, the locked doors of emigration suddenly flew open and the Jewish presence in Syria ended with two six-month mass migrations in 1992 and 1994. And, if this exodus was not dramatic enough, the bloody Syrian Civil War that occurred just two decades later would have annihilated these Jews.

Historical forces and events led to a dramatic and inspiring migration that ended the 3,000-year-old Jewish presence in Syria, and at the same time, provided a new beginning to 4,000 oppressed Jews. The move to America enriched the lives of Syrian Jews from Aleppo and Damascus by providing new opportunities to thrive while maintaining their traditions and culture. The dedication of a strong, tight-knit community changed the lives of the Jews of Syria forever and allowed the American Syrian Jewish community to become even stronger. This inspiring story teaches us that community-based activism can result in momentous positive results.

Henry A. Harary is a high school senior at the Calhoun School in New York City. Henry is a jazz guitarist. His scholarly interests include Middle Eastern studies, modern world history, music theory, and musicology.

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