Traces of Home

Colette Ghunim: ‘Escaping for your life is not something that should be criminalized.’

Film-maker Colette Ghunim is half Palestinian, half Mexican, and a documentary project exploring her roots finds striking similarities in her parents’ backgrounds

Please tell us what your film project, Traces of Home, aims to achieve.

Asking my father if he’d like to return to his home country, he slowly responded, “They promised us we could go back. Now, we are not even allowed to enter the country.” Inspired to answer questions about my origins, I am embarking on a journey with my parents, Hosni and Iza, back to Palestine and Mexico to locate their original homes.

As a child, Hosni had it all. His parents owned a successful business in Safad, Palestine, built an expansive home on top of a mountain, and often visited family and friends that lived only a few blocks away. In 1948, when Hosni was four years old, his family was forced to flee by new settlers, taking only what they could carry on their 12-hour walk to Lebanon. Later in life, Hosni heard that Jewish settlers turned their home into an Israeli hospital. Wishing to return to Palestine, he ended up moving to the United States, where he met his wife, Iza.

Iza was born in Mexico City in 1954, her father a well-known tailor for celebrities. He provided his children with love and abundance: a giant ranch house, two maids, and endless gifts. However, he concealed a dark secret, a secret only visible in his home. Iza’s father was a troubled alcoholic, severely abusing his wife whenever he got drunk. After years of abuse, Iza’s mother decided to take her children and leave Mexico, escaping from her violent husband forever.

Traces of Home is a feature-length documentary that explores what it means to be both an immigrant and an American. As my parent’s flames of displacement continue to burn decades later, Traces of Home examines the effect of never wanting to leave one’s home country in the first place.

Why did you embark on this project?

Prejudice against various ethnic groups has persisted throughout the history of the United States. With an uptick in vandalism, threats, and intimidation after the election of President Trump, immigrants are often considered a hindrance to American prosperity. The Latino and Muslim communities in particular are the current target of both racist and hateful acts. Syrian refugees banned from entering the country, undocumented people easily torn away from their families, and several mosques set on fire across the United States – Traces of Home tells a story that contrasts these tragedies, focusing instead on what needs to be heard during such turbulent times. The notion that refugees and Mexicans are coming to steal jobs and are criminals has to be met with personal accounts of how immigrants make up the foundation of the United States, bringing both valuable skills and talent to communities across the nation. My parents come from two very maligned backgrounds, with militarized borders in both Mexico and Palestine restricting communities from access to resources. Their story of success and growth in the United States highlights immigrant communities as symbols of what it means to be American.

While Traces of Home directly relates to current political and racial issues inthe United States, I am personally invested in this documentary to explore myown origins as well. Growing up as a first-generation biracial American, I never felt connected to either Mexico or Palestine. As is the experience for many multiracial individuals in the diaspora, I have never been to either of my root countries. Returning for the first time with my parents to find their childhood homes will be an invaluable experience to understand what my parents left behind to come to the United States.

What stage are you at? 

Thus far, I have developed the storylines and vision for the film, as well as prepared questions for interviews with all subjects. I have recorded five hours of interviews with my parents and mother’s sister, as well as traveled to Oregon to interview my grandmother’s sister. As part of Kartemquin Films’ Diverse Voices in Docs Fellowship, I have gone through multiple development sessions to perfect my demo for pre-production funding, as well as participated in the Midwest Peer Pitch Forum to further develop the film. I have been raising funds for 6 months to film in Palestine by March 2019, and we will be in production there for one month.

How much support has this project generated in the US, Mexico and Palestine?

I am currently in the process of building an advisory board for the film. I have connected with over 70 organizations working on immigration issues, Palestine solidarity, and the US-Mexico borders. Many are excited to use Traces of Home as a component for their own social impact campaigns and activism on the ground. 

Your project is based on similarities that you have noted between Mexican and Palestinian immigrants in the US: what do these communities have in common?

Growing up as both Mexican and Palestinian, witnessing how similar the two cultures are has been a true blessing. The two both highly value their close relationships to family, friends, and their local community. In Chicago, the Mexican and Palestinian communities are vibrant, diverse places filled with locally-owned businesses and leaders that are creating positive change in Chicago. More similar than they are different, Latinos and Arabs have faced similar struggles being accepted into American society, and my goal with Traces of Home is to combat such negative stereotypes towards them.

You have gained a significant understanding of the issues that drive Mexicans and Palestinians to migrate as part of your project: can you explain to us how you understand these?

Relating to my own family’s story, there are many immigrants who didn’t necessarily want to leave their home countries. With established familial and friend ties, housing, even sustained financial means, their home countries remind them of security and stability. For my parents specifically, they were both forced to leave to escape violence: political strife in Palestine, and domestic abuse in Mexico. Like today’s refugees escaping Syria and other countries in Central America, they knew that if they stayed, they would most likely not be alive today. Escaping for your and your family’s life is not something that should be criminalized; showing the real reasons people leave, like my own family, will allow viewers to gain perspective and a deeper understanding of the complex issue of migration.