Lital Benhaim, a 36-year-old Israeli, and Vinas, a 31-year-old Iranian, are in love. But their countries are at war.
They met over two years ago at an international dance festival in Turkey. For months, they wandered together from Georgia to Armenia to Turkey and back, staying only as long as their tourist visas would allow. "There aren't that many countries that take in both Israeli and Iranian citizens," Lital says wryly.
They spoke with Al-Monitor via Skype from a village two hours north of Nicosia in Cyprus, where they were sent by the police. There, Cypriot welfare authorities have been providing them with public housing and food parcels for the past two months. Before that, they were homeless and often hungry.
Vinas, who does not want to give his full name because he fears for his family's welfare back in Iran, says they have also been given basic medical coverage, but they do not know why they were sent to that particular village, how long they can stay or where they might go when they leave.
Lital says, "We have survived until now, and we will survive. But we have no future. We cannot work, we cannot settle down, we cannot have a family. We are struggling and afraid."
In June, they started a crowd-funding campaign in the hope that they will be able to sustain themselves until they find a country that will take them both.
Lital spoke to Al-Monitor in her native Hebrew and in near-fluent English. Vinas' English is rudimentary and halting. "But we know how to communicate," he says, and they both giggle.
Both Lital and Vinas had been traveling the world for years before they met. Vinas, who studied engineering and classical piano in Iran, had lived in Sri Lanka, Georgia, Turkey and Armenia, working as a butcher and gardener and giving an occasional concert. Lital grew up in Ramat Yishai, in northern Israel, in what she describes as "a typical middle-class Israeli family." During her military service, she was trained as a dental hygienist, then she studied dental hygiene in Jerusalem and worked in the profession for about five years.
But dental hygiene was not for her. "I am a care-free person. I want to create and travel," she explains. Attending workshops and learning from YouTube videos and people she met while traveling, she scraped together a living as an artisan, weaving baskets, carving small statuettes, and tying bracelets and small dream catchers.
They exchange knowing glances when they say that the meeting at the dance festival was "love at first sight." Almost breathlessly, Lital says she "saw Vinas standing alone in a field, peeling a wild artichoke. He was tall, dark, barefoot and beautiful.''
"At our wedding," she says, hugging Vinas lightly, "we will serve wild artichokes."
Vinas says, "I don't have the words to describe what I felt. I just knew from the beginning I loved her."
They traveled wherever they could both get visas, but it became increasingly difficult. "Muslim countries don't feel safe for an Israeli, and certainly not for a Jewish-Muslim, Israeli-Iranian, unmarried couple," says Lital.
Eventually, they traveled to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. After two weeks on the streets and with no solution in sight, they crossed into the south part of Nicosia. They dumpster-dived for edible scraps and lived in the rough, camping in parks and behind construction sites. They carried everything they owned on their backs until a flash flood wiped out their belongings. As a woman, Lital says, she felt particularly vulnerable. "I was frightened all the time. Vinas had to come with me even when I went to the bathroom in the forest."
They have formally applied for political refugee status, but this has left them in limbo. Until Cyprus makes a decision regarding their case, they cannot travel abroad, get work papers or establish a residence. Morosely, Lital says, "We know people who have been stuck in Cyprus for 10 and even 15 years." If their appeal is rejected, they could be deported, separately, each to his or her own country.
Even if she were willing to be separated from Vinas, Lital’s return to Israel would be difficult. When they applied for political asylum, Cypriot authorities took their passports and told them they would return their passports if they demanded them, but their asylum petition would be canceled.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry did not respond to Al-Monitor's inquiries. Speaking off the record because he is unauthorized to speak to the press, a Foreign Ministry official explained that once citizens ask for political asylum, their countries of birth will not help them. "Even if we were willing to make an exception and let Lital come home," the official says, "Vinas would be a problem."
Fearing arrest and imprisonment, Vinas does not want to come to Israel, nor can he return to Iran — like Lital, his asylum petition would be canceled, but also he fears that he and his family would likely be tortured, imprisoned and murdered.
Vinas has only rare, indirect contact with his family in Iran. Lital is in touch with her family in Israel, but they cannot visit because of travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The campaign has raised €2,734.00. Says Lital, "We are very thankful. We hope that by telling our story we can change our lives.’’ And at least for now, they say, they have food and a roof over their heads. The funding campaign also got the attention of Israelis living on the island, who provided them with extra food.
They both say they have no regrets. "We are together all the time," says Vinas. "We feel like we have been together for 20 years. It is intense, and it shows how strong our love is."
Lital adds, "We live a simple life. I am not a political person, yet policies between governments are affecting my life and my dreams."