When Returning Home is Political

“Traces of Home,” A Documentary

This article was originally published in the 4th print issue of Palestine in America. Order a copy of Palestine in America’s 4th print issue here.

Donald Trump would not like Colette Ghunim. This makes little sense because Ghunim — a Palestinian-Mexican-American filmmaker — is extremely likeable.

For her latest project, “Traces of Home,” she will be traveling with her Mexican mother, Iza, and her Palestinian father, Hosni, back to their childhood homes. Both fled violence when they were young and never returned. The documentary presents an opportunity for self-reflection, therapy and closure.

Hosni Ghunim was born in Safad, Palestine in 1944. He remembers little of his childhood there, but what he’s been told about it weighs on him heavily.

His father was a successful merchant. The family owned multiple homes, one in Safad and another in the mountains. Life was idyllic, and the family lived comfortably.

In recounting his family’s dispossession, Hosni mentions Deir Yassin, a village west of Jerusalem. On April 9, 1948, Zionist paramilitary forces attacked the village, massacring 93 people, including 30 babies, according to Israeli historian Ilan Pappe. The Zionist forces raped women and mutilated Palestinian bodies. Later, as the ethnic cleansing of Palestine proceeded apace, Zionists taunted Palestinians by blaring through loudspeakers, “Deir Yassin, Deir Yassin,” to warn the indigenous inhabitants of the terrible fate that awaited them if they failed to abandon their homes.

“Everyone was scared,” Hosni explains. Understandably, he and his family fled Safad in 1948, leaving behind all of their possessions, their homes and the peaceful lives they once knew, walking through the night for 12 hours straight to Lebanon.

Hosni notes that since the Nakba of 1948, “All Palestinians are struggling just to live as a human being.”

The family remained in Lebanon for several months before relocating to Damascus, Syria, for better economic opportunities. Slowly, Hosni’s father began rebuilding his business as a merchant, initially having only rice and sugar to sell.

Hosni spent the remainder of his childhood in Damascus. Upon graduating from high school, Hosni traveled to Spain, where he lived for five years, studying to become a television director.

In 1970, he returned to Damascus for three years of mandatory military service. He describes the experience as “quite bad,” even though he managed to avoid combat due to his university degree and talent as a director. During his service, he created educational movies that taught soldiers various training exercises, how to defend themselves and so on.

Hosni traveled to the United States in 1977 to continue his studies at Columbia College Chicago. He knew only one person in the U.S., a Syrian friend with whom he stayed for a few months. But it didn’t take long for Hosni to make other friends.

On the first day he arrived, he met his future wife, Iza, at a party. Caught up in a whirlwind romance, they married six months later. Today, 40 years since, they remain happily wedded.

Filmmaker Colette Ghunim (right) speaking with her mother, Iza, and a guest at her fundraising event for “Traces of Home.”

Iza’s path to Hosni was similarly tumultuous. Iza was born in Mexico City in 1954 to a well-to-do family. Everyone that knew her family thought they had the perfect life, Iza says. Her father was “extremely influential in Mexico City” and worked as a tailor for celebrities. He was an unerringly strict parent, and Iza recalls that he demanded the family was always dressed flawlessly and that she and her siblings earned stellar grades in school.

Her father drank frequently and would lash out violently, terrorizing his wife with abuse. Iza remembers seeing her mother with black eyes and bruises. But her mother was afraid to leave, partially because she had three small children. Ten years into their marriage, however, she worked up the courage to leave, with the assistance of her brothers.

At 5 a.m. one morning, Iza’s mother told her that they were leaving their father and going to the U.S. Her mother instructed her that if her father woke up, they were to tell him they were going to school. Had he known their plans, Iza says, he “probably would have killed [my mother] there.” They took a bus, traveled through the night, and changed their names. Iza never saw her father again.

When they left, her father hired detectives to try and find his wife and children. As a result, from the age of 8-11, Iza says she and her family were “basically in hiding.”

Though the plan had been to move to the U.S., they encountered some difficulties. Iza’s mother, born in Detroit, had no trouble entering the U.S., but her children, born in Mexico, would not be allowed to enter until their paperwork had been completed. The Mexican Consulate even insisted they would need their father’s approval to be taken to the U.S.

At first, 8-year-old Iza, her 3-year-old brother and her 6-year-old sister stayed together in a small house with several older women looking after them in the border town of Tijuana, Mexico. When it became apparent, however, that getting the children into the U.S. was going to take several months, Iza’s mother, heartbroken, enrolled the older two in a Catholic boarding school that doubled as an orphanage while the 3-year-old was left with the old women in Tijuana.

Meanwhile, Iza’s mother went to the U.S. in search of a job so that she could bring her children into the country and support them. At various points, she worked in Los Angeles as a maid for wealthy people, in a curtain factory and at a laundromat that washed hotels’ sheets and linens. “It was a very different lifestyle from what we had been accustomed to,” Iza observed.

Even with these jobs, Iza’s mother was unable to afford tuition for the Catholic boarding school, and so the children had to wake up at 6 a.m. to do chores and other manual labor. But Iza says, “The worst part was the separation.” Their mother tried to visit every two weeks and would take the bus from Los Angeles to Tijuana. But she was able to stay for only a couple of hours at a time.

It took 6-8 months, but finally, in 1963, Iza and her siblings joined their mother in the U.S.

When I asked Colette Ghunim why she decided to make “Traces of Home” now, she explains that she knew she wanted to make a film about her parents’ stories at some point, but thought it might happen later in her career, once she was more established as a filmmaker and had sufficiently honed her craft so she could do their stories justice.

But then Trump was elected.

“Both Latinos and Arabs are being persecuted. This is the time,” she realized.

Ghunim sees clear parallels between her parents’ stories and current events unfolding. The present situation in Gaza and the West Bank is a continuation of what happened in 1948, she explains.

“A lot of the people that are coming from the Arab world, Syrian refugees…are escaping war and will be dead if they stay,” she says. “And that’s exactly what would have happened if my dad had stayed in Palestine. Zionist settlers were massacring entire villages, and his village would have been massacred.”

At the very least, “If they did not leave, they would have been expelled,” Ghunim adds.

She also draws connections between her mother’s story and the flurry of recent domestic news coverage about immigration. Family separations of one kind or another have been happening for years, despite what the sudden media reports seem to suggest.

“When my grandmother came in, she had to leave her children in an orphanage because she couldn’t bring them in,” Ghunim points out. “A lot of people that are leaving Mexico are [doing so] because of the poor economic conditions or, yes, they have problems with domestic violence, and if they stay in the country, they could die. My grandmother was definitely going to die if she stayed. [My grandfather] definitely would have found her if she stayed in Mexico. That’s why they had to cross the border.”

These observations led Ghunim to conclude that, “Even if I didn’t necessarily mean for [the documentary] to be political, it’s political.”

Indeed, when Ghunim described the film to several organizations and potential backers, they declined to support the project because they didn’t want to be seen as “taking sides” in the so called Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The alternative was to not tell the full story. But Ghunim insists, “We’re definitely going to tell the history of how [my father lost his home].”

However, baring such traumas to the world can be a painful experience.

“This is difficult for us to open up [to the public],” Iza explains. But she hopes the documentary will give strength to women — especially those with children — who may be trapped in abusive relationships, afraid to leave. The project also provides Iza with a sense of closure.

“This is a bit therapeutic, because for a long time, when we were growing up, we would say that our father had died,” Iza says. “When people would ask, we really wouldn’t know what to say. I really always wondered what exactly happened.”

For Hosni, the documentary can counter inaccurate news reports and offer an honest portrayal of Palestine that is so rarely presented in the mainstream media. Though his reasons for wanting to return to Palestine are simple: “I want to know where I was born, because I don’t know,” he says. The emotions underlying this straightforward statement, however, are anything but.

I asked Hosni if he would move back to Palestine tomorrow if he could.

“I don’t think so,” he says. “Not until we have peace.” There is significant pain and sadness in his voice. “I only have one wish: we can live together with the…Jews…like a brother, in harmony.”

In the trailer for “Traces of Home,” Ghunim says that growing up she never felt completely American, Palestinian or Mexican. This documentary is a way of claiming those identities as her own and simultaneously getting closer to them, she explains.

Yet even if Ghunim at one point felt distant from her heritages, her parents’ impact on her is obvious and immense. In 1980, Hosni opened his own photography studio, and throughout Ghunim’s life, he worked as a videographer. Ghunim remembers attending Mexican weddings and quinceaneras with her father, who documented the events. Later, in college, she decided she wanted to be a filmmaker, realizing “it was subconsciously in me the entire time.”

Ghunim’s realization that she wanted to become a filmmaker came while she was in the Middle East, studying abroad in Egypt. She took a film class there, and the teacher asked for a volunteer to help out at a film festival that was happening near the city of Alexandria. She spent time with filmmakers from around the world, learned about their lives, and saw their “mind-blowing” movies. The experience led her to conclude, “I could definitely see myself doing something like this.”

In 2014, weeks after graduating from Northwestern University, Ghunim joined a friend back in Egypt to create “The People’s Girls,” an award-winning documentary about Egyptian street harassment.

To demonstrate what a huge problem street harassment is in Egypt, Ghunim had walked across a busy bridge, secretly recording with her phone, and captured intense and disturbing footage of leering men. She put it on Facebook and woke up the next morning to find that Egyptian Streets, a popular news outlet, had picked it up. From there, Ghunim’s video went viral, garnering over two million views. Riding the wave of their new-found publicity, Ghunim and her friend launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund “The People’s Girls.” The campaign raised $27,000, and they completed the film in August 2016.

Ghunim hopes to finish “Traces of Home” by early 2020, though she still has a lot of work ahead of her.

One challenge will be actually locating her parents’ childhood homes. Ghunim’s great aunt, Nena, who is in her 90s, knows where Iza’s home is, but if she has difficulty remembering exactly where it is, Ghunim says they could search the business records, since her grandfather’s tailoring business might be listed there.

Locating Hosni’s home will be more difficult. Ghunim consulted with the Tel Aviv-based nonprofit Zochrot, which promotes awareness about the Nakba. Representatives from Zochrot told her that there is an old Palestinian man in Safad — one of the last — who is about the same age as Ghunim’s father, and he has been making a map of the village, pre-1948, with thousands of names marking the former owners of each home. Zochrot sent her a PDF of the map, and she was able to find a surname that closely resembles “Ghunim.”

Aside from finding her parents’ homes, Ghunim is also in need of funding for the project. She raised some money through an event that took place in June that featured a delicious Palestinian-Mexican-inspired four-course meal, courtesy of Palestinian-American chef Abeer Najjar. At the event there were also performances from spoken word artist Kevin Coval, harpist Zacbe Pichardo, singer Mary Hazboun and oud player Alex Farha. Still, Ghunim has many additional expenses that she needs to cover, including film crews, camera rentals, and living expenses.

“I am super excited to go to both places,” Ghunim gushes. She has never been to Palestine or Mexico City. And to make these trips with her parents — who have not returned to their homes since they were children — is sure to be an emotional ordeal.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of “Traces of Home” is the generosity of the project. Another family might have decided returning home was a private affair meant to be shared only with close relatives. Ghunim, however, understands the power of these private moments and — when documented on film — their capacity to humanize and transform their subjects in their viewers’ eyes. “Traces of Home” is a story about dispossession, love, abuse, immigration and identity.

And we are all lucky to be able to make this trip with the Ghunim family.

If you would like to support this wonderful project, you can donate at tracesofhome.com.

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