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Pilsen Filmmaker Tracing Her Parents’ Immigrant Roots Back To Palestine And Mexico In New Documentary

Colette Ghunim aims to challenge the “dominant narratives" about immigrants — and you can help her finish her family's story.

Pilsen filmmaker Colette Ghunim is telling her parents' story in the new documentary "Traces of Home."
Kickstarter; Mauricio Pena/ Block Club Chicago
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PILSEN — Growing up, Colette Ghunim remembers hearing how her parents were forced to leave their respective homelands in Mexico and Palestine as children.

But the gravity of their stories didn’t quite hit Ghunim until the 2016 presidential election.

“Hearing about family separations and the refugee ban, it put so much weight on my parents’ stories, and our story. I knew it needed to be told from both the Arab and Latino perspective,” Ghunim said.

Now, the 27-year-old filmmaker is raising money on Kickstarter to complete her first feature-length documentary, “Traces of Home,” which tells the true story of how her immigrant parents fled their home countries to survive and follows them as they return to their childhood homes several decades later.

At age four, her father, Hosni, and his family, who owned a successful business, were among thousands who fled Palestine in 1948. On their 12-hour journey to Lebanon, they only were able to take with them what they could carry. He was never allowed to return, and after attending college in Spain, he moved to the United States.

Credit: Provided
Hosni Ghunim fled Palestine in 1948 at age 4.

Meanwhile Ghunim’s mother, Iza, was born in Mexico City, Mexico, in 1954, where her father was a well-known tailor to the stars. He provided for his children with lots of love, but he he had a secret: He was a troubled alcoholic and was abusing his wife, Iza’s mother. Fearing for her life, Iza’s mother took her children and fled Mexico for the U.S. when Iza was eight years old, hiding from her violent husband who wanted to kill her, according to Ghunim’s campaign. They first settled in Los Angeles and then moved to Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood when Iza was 11.

Credit: Provided
Iza Ghunim was born in Mexico City in 1954.

Fast forward to today, the pair — born more than 7,000 miles apart — have been married for forty years; They met on Hosni’s first day in Chicago in 1978. They raised their two children in the suburban Schaumburg, where Colette never met her relatives from either culture or spoke Spanish or Arabic growing up.

Earlier this year, more than 70 years after he left, Ghunim and her father traveled to his hometown of Safad, now part of Israel, to find his childhood home.

“Never returning to Palestine since 1948, I had previously only understood my father as an immigrant in the U.S. – someone who was divorced from the land he belonged,” said Ghunim, who lives in Pilsen.

But as she filmed in Israel with an entirely Palestinian crew, she soon learned what the journey meant to her father. It meant he was going home.

“I witnessed firsthand what homecoming meant to him, and how access to a land and community that had previously been denied to him brought back both the love of his homeland and the trauma of separation associated with it,” she said. “I was able to finally understand parts of him that were previously hidden in his adopted American identity.”

Now, to finish her film, Ghunim aims to follow her mother to Mexico City next year to retrace her family’s roots. But first she needs financial help to do it.

Ghunim’s Kickstarter campaign aims to raise $35,000 that will pay for the second-half of the film’s production in Mexico and post-production work. To date, Ghunim has raised $18,351 for the film and she has about a week left to raise the remaining funds.

Credit: Traces of Home/ Kickstarter
Filming our search for Colette Ghunim’s father’s home in Palestine.

If all goes well, she hopes to travel to Mexico with her mom in January and release the film, which will serve as an intimate testimonial of the hardships many immigrants face, before the November 2020 presidential election.

Meanwhile, Ghunim, a Kartemquin Films diverse voices and doc fellow, is working with more than 30 organizations, including Mujeres Latinas en Accion, the Institute for Middle East UnderstandingUS Campaign for Palestinian Rights, and Organized Communities Against Deportations ahead of the film’s completion.

Ghunim hopes to broadcast her film nationally on PBS to paint to challenge the stereotypes and “dominant narratives.”

Her parents’ story is compelling, as are so many other immigrant and first-generation American stories, she said.

“This is is just one of the millions of immigrant stories,” she said.

Under President Donald Trump’s stringent immigration policies, “if this happened to my parents [today,] they wouldn’t have survived,” she said.

Ghunim hopes the film serves as a source of pride and inspiration to those who are multicultural “at a time when we’re told we shouldn’t be proud of it.”

“I want to people to feel inspired and find their own roots,” she said.

Donate to Colette Ghunim’s Kickstarter campaign here.

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