‘I Have The Right To Love Who I Love’
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‘I Have The Right To Love Who I Love’

The common law marriage between an Israeli woman and a Sudanese asylum seeker tests the values of the Jewish state.

Ori Caspi’s life is falling apart.

Ever since her husband was taken away this past spring, she can’t fall asleep at night. Unable to face their empty home, she stays on friends’ sofas, laptop in hand, scouring the Internet for solutions until dawn. She’s missing work shifts, hasn’t paid rent since last month, and is preparing for the possibility that soon she’ll be truly homeless. But these aren’t her real problems, she says.

“My one real problem is that he’s not here with me. He means everything to me, you know?” she says. “But I guess that means nothing to the Interior Ministry.”

Caspi is a 31-year-old sketch artist from the Krayot area, near Haifa, who moonlights as a waitress. A year ago, a common friend introduced her to her husband, whom she calls Moses. His real name is Musa Hamis Sulaiman, and he is an asylum seeker from Sudan.

Sulaiman, who is mortified by reporters, declined to be interviewed. Instead, he asked that Caspi relate his story. According to her, he was born in Darfur, a region of western Sudan ravaged by war. At age 17, after the war scattered his family, he fled to Egypt, where “things were also very bad.” He came to Israel after hearing that life there was better, and that the Israelis, who were once a displaced people themselves, were compassionate towards asylum seekers.

At the time this was true. Sudan is recognized by the United Nations as a country in a humanitarian crisis, and per Israel’s refugee accord with the UN, Sulaiman was not turned back at the border. In 2008, after he stepped over the low fence then separating Israel from Egypt, Israeli soldiers offered him some water and escorted him in. He was taken to the southern city of Eilat, and granted a “temporary protection order,” a blanket status given to all asylum seekers from Sudan, which allows them to stay and work in Israel until their permanent status is determined. The permit must be renewed every three months.

Sulaiman found work on the cleaning staff of the Nesicha, a large hotel in Eilat, and settled down there. For six years he worked in Eilat legally, paying taxes, making friends, becoming part of Israeli society. In 2013, he met Caspi and fell in love.

“People keep asking me, ‘Why did you have to choose HIM?’” she says bitterly. “I keep telling them, ‘If you knew him, you’d understand.’ He’s special, he’s not like the other guys I met.”

Sulaiman made Caspi feel cherished. Whenever she took the five- hour bus ride from Haifa to Eilat, he’d be waiting for her at the station. He’d fill the refrigerator in his apartment with the foods she liked. One night, she recalls, he noticed that her favorite brand of body soap was running out. When she woke up the following morning, a new one was standing in its place. Apparently, before leaving for work at 5 a.m., Sulaiman had walked half a mile to the nearest 24-hour pharmacy and bought it for her, just so she could enjoy it in her morning shower.

“It’s not like I asked him for it, or like there weren’t plenty of other soaps I could use,” she smiles. “He just wanted me to have the one I liked best. It’s a little thing, but it’s little things like this that make up a relationship.”

This March, after 11 months together, the two concluded that “This is for real, and this is for life,” and decided to institutionalize their relationship. Since Israel does not perform inter-denominational marriages, they opted for the only alternative available to them without leaving the country: marriage by common law. A civil agreement with limited legal standing, common law marriage nonetheless declares them, for all practical intentions, man and wife.

Their happiness was short lived. The next time Sulaiman tried to renew his permit, he was denied. All of a sudden he was no longer allowed to work in Israel, and was ordered to report to Holot, an open detention facility in the middle of the Negev desert.

It wasn’t anything he did — Sulaiman was a model resident for his entire time in Israel. It’s just that the state, flooded in the past few years by more asylum seekers than it could take, is changing its policies. Newcomers are prevented from entering through the Sinai border by a new high wall. Veterans like Sulaiman have their work permits revoked, and are swept by the thousands to Holot. They are kept there in the state’s custody indefinitely, or until they agree to return to Sudan.

Still, according to Israel’s Basic Laws (a set of primary laws akin to a constitution), all citizens have the inalienable right to choose their partners and conduct a family life with them, regardless of race, religion or status. After receiving the order, Sulaiman and Caspi rushed to alert the Interior Ministry to the fact that they were living together as man and wife, and that by law they should not be forced apart. They provided the ministry with plenty of evidence of their relationship’s legitimacy: their common-law marriage certificate, photos from their wedding, pictures from their year together, testimonies and contact details of friends and employers who could vouch for them. While waiting for the ministry’s answer they moved into Caspi’s apartment in the Krayot, since Sulaiman was fired from his job in Eilat the moment his work permit was revoked.

On April 23, the ministry denied their request to be recognized as a couple, stating that they had “failed to prove the existence of a family unit.” The couple appealed. A week later, the immigration police showed up at their apartment and took Sulaiman to the immigration offices in Haifa for an investigation. They meant to ship him directly from there to Holot, but his lawyer intervened. Sulaiman reported to the facility a few days later, on his own accord. He has been there ever since.

In an email to The Jewish Week, an immigration official at the Interior Ministry wrote: “Musa Hamis Sulaiman was ordered to Holot, and at this point he notified us that he is conducting a shared life with an Israeli citizen. As required in all requests of this sort, he was asked to show proof of their shared life. The couple could not prove this (among other things, because for the entire time he lived and worked in Eilat and she in the north), and for this reason their request was denied. He appealed this decision, and the appeal was discussed and denied in light of the facts.”

Eran Sadeh, the couple’s lawyer, explains that the couple’s request was rejected for two reasons. First, even though it was obvious that Caspi had been sleeping over, the two needed to be sharing an address on paper for longer in order to be officially considered as life partners. The ministry had actively prevented this requirement from being fulfilled by immediately sending Sulaiman to Holot, thus locking the key to the box in the box.

Secondly, Sulaiman could not produce some of the required documents from Sudan, including his birth certificate and a valid passport. According to Sadeh, this was the determining factor.

The fact that it is impossible to obtain records from Sudan, a third-world country in a state of upheaval, was met with a polite shrug. “This is a problem, a systemic problem,” Sadeh points out. The ministry’s rigid insistence on records that just cannot be obtained has created a status quo in which a procedural technicality regularly outweighs a much higher legal principle: that of a person’s right to chose and to live with a spouse.

“It’s impossible that the answer [of the ministry] is that ‘We are outright rejecting your request because he doesn’t have a valid passport.’ Of course he won’t have a valid passport — he’s been here for six years, there’s no Sudanese consulate in Israel, he has no way to renew it. … There must be some other solution here, some flexibility.”

So far, the couple’s attempts to reason or compromise with the Ministry have failed. Since Sulaiman’s de facto incarceration, he and his wife have appealed the Ministry’s decision twice, and were twice denied. If the third appeal is also rejected, the case will be taken to the Ministry’s internal court, and from there, eventually, to the higher court of administrative appeals. There, says Sadeh, he believes they have a good chance to win. “The law is on our side. We have a long road ahead of us, but I believe it will have a happy end.”

Such a victory, he notes, may eventually bring about a change in the Ministry’s procedures, making the lives of many Israeli-Sudanese couples a little easier in the future.

But as the wheels of justice continue to slowly turn, the couple is trapped in its separate, Sisyphean routines. Sulaiman’s consists of dusty days of forced idleness and anxiety, punctuated by Caspi’s frequent visits. She comes on the bus from Beersheva, spends a few hours with him in the facility’s scorching parking lot, and leaves — crying, usually — before the nightly lockdown.

For Caspi, the routines involve waitressing when she can, visiting him when she can, and reaching out to experts and reporters instead of sleeping at night. To an extent, her efforts have been productive: her story was published several months ago in Ha-Makom, an independent journalistic website, and was briefly covered by Israel’s Channel 2 news.

While the exposure did not affect the legal proceedings, it drew plenty of unwanted attention to the couple, and now Caspi wastes much of her sleep hours fending off harassment on social media. For loving a Sudanese man, she has been called a traitor to Israel, a failure, a loser, a slut, a ni**er-lover. Recently, Lehava, a Jewish organization dedicated to opposing interdenominational marriages, has singled her out as a “bad Jew.” Whether it is in malice or in reproach, everyone seems to be asking her the same question: couldn’t you find a Jewish man?

Though she knows it’s pointless, she keeps on answering. “It makes no difference that he’s not Jewish, that he’s black, that he came from Sudan,” she writes. “I have the right to love who I love.”

editor@jewishweek.org

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