End of 3,000 Years of History After Escape of the Last Jews of Aleppo

It took a knock on the door in the dead of night and a hair-raising journey through territory held by al-Qaeda militants to end 3,000 years of Jewish history in northern Syria.

Published: 23rd November 2015 07:50 AM  |   Last Updated: 23rd November 2015 07:50 AM   |  A+A-

It took a knock on the door in the dead of night and a hair-raising journey through territory held by al-Qaeda militants to end 3,000 years of Jewish history in northern Syria.

The last Jewish family in the city of Aleppo was taken across the border to safety in Turkey last month with the help of an Israeli-American businessman and moderate rebels with the Free Syrian Army.

Mariam Halabi, 88, and her two daughters, Gilda and Sarah, both in their fifties, had survived more than four years of civil war in Syria, leading a secretive life while their city was fought over by the regime of Bashar al-Assad and Islamist rebels.

The family had stayed in their home, despite water and electricity becoming scarce, practising Judaism even when kosher food became unavailable.

But for Mariam's son Yoni, who lives in New York, worrying over his family's safety became intolerable and eventually he contacted a rabbi he had been told might be able to help.

The rabbi had heard of humanitarian work being carried out by Moti Kahana, a Jewish businessman, in support of the Syrian rebels. Late on Oct 13, a Syrian sent by Mr Kahana knocked on the Halabis' door. He told them he was sent by Yoni and that it was "time to go".

Wearing headscarves to disguise themselves as Muslims, the family, including Gilda's Syrian Muslim husband, Khalid, and his three teenage children from a former marriage, took what they could and were bundled into a minibus heading for the Turkish border. The 12-hour journey took the family through multiple Islamist rebel checkpoints. At one point, Mr Kahana said, the family had to negotiate a checkpoint manned by al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra.

In Turkey, the family took refuge in the home of a Palestinian Syrian woman before continuing to Istanbul.

Selma, 43, herself a refugee from the Assad regime, and fearful of reprisals for helping the family, said they were shaken and emotional when they arrived in Antakya in southern Turkey.

"They were scared and distressed. The woman is very old and sick," Selma said. "But they were very grateful. They were happy to leave, but afraid."

The family had hoped to be reunited with Yoni in New York but despite the Halabis having fled to safety, their story does not have a wholly happy ending.

When they arrived in Istanbul, Mr Kahana told them visas to America were hard to secure and it would be easier to apply for a right of return visa to Israel - known as Aliyah - to begin with.

Mr Kahana contacted the Jewish Agency, the body responsible for repatriation of Jews to Israel, which dispatched a liaison to arrange the transfer to Israel. But while Mariam and Sarah were granted Aliyah, Gilda was refused because she had converted to Islam to marry her Muslim husband.

"They wanted to come to New York but I thought it was easier for them to go to Israel first," Mr Kahana said.

"Then my contact told me that the Israelis took the mother and the daughter, but left the married daughter behind. I was so frustrated."

With no money to live off, Gilda and her husband took the risk to return their young family to Syria. Meanwhile, her elderly mother and her sister Sarah have now settled in Ashkelon in Israel.

All three women have declined to speak to journalists, but Mr Kahana knows that they are traumatised by the separation. The Jewish Agency claims it did what it could to help the family but that under the rules of Aliyah migration, converts are not eligible.

Yigal Palmor, spokesman for the agency, blamed Mr Kahana for luring the family out of Syria on the promise that he could get them to America.

Jews lived in Syria for more than 3,000 years until a mass exodus following the creation of Israel in 1948, and again in the 1960s. There are now believed to be only 18 Jews left in Syria, all of them living in Damascus.

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