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Changing Lifestyles : For Syria's Jews, a Modern Flight From Damascus : * President Hafez Assad has opened the door for the last 1,250 of the tiny minority to leave their centuries-old quarter.


DAMASCUS, Syria--For years, Faraj Mousa Mamroud has been a fixture at the Ibn Maimoun School in the heart of the Jewish quarter of old Damascus. He is like the chairs he repairs, the doors he re-hinges and the floors he sweeps each day. At 46, Mamroud the janitor is part of the very fabric of the only Jewish school left in Syria--indeed, of the dwindling community it serves.

But last week, Mamroud's life changed forever. So too did the fate of the last members of his, the most politically sensitive and symbolic Jewish community in the Arab world. And come this Sabbath, Mamroud and his family will be gone, ending 3,000 years of unbroken generations of Jews in his family to be born, live and die in their gritty, ancient quarter of an equally ancient Arab land.

On Saturday, Mamroud will hang up his broom, lock the door of the house passed down by his ancestors, board a plane for New York and embark on a future that is as uncertain as the Middle East peace process his exodus is meant to aid.

Mamroud's fate, along with those of the hundreds of other Syrian Jews still in Damascus despite years of appeals to leave, was sealed in a preamble to Sunday's summit between President Clinton and Syrian President Hafez Assad, who ended years of diplomatic wrangling over the future of Syria's tiny Jewish minority by agreeing last month to issue immediate exit visas for the last 1,250 Syrian Jews there.

It was among several important recent concessions to the United States and to the Israeli government by the durable Syrian strongman, who holds the key to any lasting peace in the region.

In fact, Assad's decision to speed the departure of Syria's Jewish community, announced after he met with Secretary of State Warren Christopher here last month, helped pave the way for Sunday's presidential summit in Geneva. It came after years of pressure from the United States, the destination of all but a few of the 2,500 Syrian Jews who have left Damascus in the two years since Assad first relaxed longstanding travel restrictions on them.

"The atmosphere now is very encouraging, and the people are full of hope," said Syria's chief rabbi, Avraham Hamra, the leader of Syria's Jewish community for the last two decades.

Sitting beneath a portrait of Assad that is the centerpiece of his office in the Ibn Maimoun School last week, Hamra said he expects most of his congregation to settle in Brooklyn. There, they will join a 30,000-member Syrian Jewish community that dates to early this century, when Jews fled persecution by Syria's Turkish occupiers.

Asked about "the bureaucratic problems" that had delayed the exit visas for his congregation before Assad's promise to Christopher last month, Rabbi Hamra demurred. "This region is seeing changes and events that are accelerating every day," he said. "So let's not speak in the past. Let's speak in the future."


The rabbi spoke of the collective joy of his congregation's newfound freedom. Their exit permits have come after decades during which Syria permitted only individual family members to leave the country. For decades before that, the Jews were confined to a 3-mile radius around their ancient quarter.

But there will be challenges and sadness too, Rabbi Hamra knows.

Many in his congregation, he said, will face new economic and social hardships in America, where unemployment and culture shock have led several dozen members of the community to return to Syria, at least temporarily. And those who have committed themselves and their descendants to a new life in America will lose more than their ancestral roots in the process.

All the emigrants, the rabbi said, are leaving their houses and most of their possessions behind, less as a hedge against the future than a matter of the law. There are few Arab buyers for the ramshackle homes in a neighborhood where state law prohibits development or improvements. Even if they could sell, few families would: It is illegal for any citizen to leave the republic with more than $2,500.

Yet the rabbi insisted that some in his congregation are more content than others to keep their property in Damascus--as long as the peace talks continue between Israel and its Arab neighbors. A peace treaty between Syria and Israel, he said, would translate into prosperity for anyone who owns land in a city where real estate prices already are soaring.

For now, though, most of the Syrian Jews clearly are far more content to leave, even if it means leaving behind their homes, their roots and a once-lively Jewish quarter that is now little more than a shuttered and padlocked maze of lanes increasingly resembling a ghost town.

"Of course, I am very happy," said Mamroud, the janitor, as he contemplated his upcoming journey. Unlike most of the emigrants, Mamroud said he has some idea of what lies ahead. He spent 45 days in America seven years ago, when he was not permitted to bring his wife or children.

"Los Angeles," he said, when asked what impressed him most about a trip that took him to visit relatives in New York and California--the state where he said he hopes to live. "It was so developed. There are high buildings everywhere. The roads. Everywhere, there are big, modern roads. And the climate. The weather in Los Angeles is more like Damascus."

First, though, Mamroud said he must settle in Brooklyn, where he and his wife and four children will join his eldest son, who emigrated there 14 months ago and now is working as a tailor in the borough's 90-year-old Syrian Jewish neighborhood.

What will the gaunt and frail janitor do for a living in New York?

"I don't know yet. It depends what I will find there."

Finally, though, he smiled broadly, his red eyes creased with joy.

"I will do what I have done my whole life," Mamroud said. "I will depend upon God, and everything will be fine."

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