Most neighborhoods have them, little mini marts that sell daily necessities. My local corner store is part of a chain, but in other cities less car-driven, these convenience stores tend to be mom-and-pop businesses. In the San Francisco neighborhood of Mistro, between the Mission and Castro, Yousef (Joseph) Elhaj owns the Church Street corner store.
More than ten years ago, this Christian Palestinian left his family behind Bethlehem, Palestine and came to America working first for his brother-in-law and then buying the Church Street store from his older brother. In Palestine he worked as a salesman for a plastics manufacturing company, but after the Second Intifada, realized that his wages were not enough to support his family. Corner Store documents a pivotal point in his life.
Joseph works hard; he lives in the backroom of the store and makes sure that the goods are stocked in a logical, thoughtful manner, always greeting his customers with warmth and courtesy. His customers and neighbors like him, they have grown to know him over the years in short, two-minute bursts of conversation, but Yousef is isolated and lonely, and desperately misses his family. Despite his business ownership, when the film starts, he has not been able to work through the immigration bureaucracy to bring his family to America.
Producer/director/editor Katherine Bruens and cinematographer Sean Gillane follow Yousef back to his homeland where he reunites with his family, passing through check points along the lengthy route through Jordan to Palestine. Once back in Bethlehem, Yousef sees what his hard work has given his families, material comforts, private school education, a safe home, but without his presence. One of daughters remarks that Yousef planted a vegetable garden but once he left they didn’t know how to tend it, and the plants all died.
The realities of the West Bank confront him–the negatives out weighing the positives–so when finally the family visas are granted he makes the difficult decision to bring them to America, knowing how hard the adjustments will be for his teenage children. But he also realizes the opportunities are much greater in the United States…
This is sweet loving documentary that shows another side of immigrant life, as well as giving us a unique look at life in the West Bank. In San Francisco, Yousef must struggle with isolation and protect himself from bigotry–after 9/11 he hung an American flag inside his store, and symbols of his Christian faith decorate the walls–in the West Bank, there is also bigotry and fear as evidenced by the huge wall that bifurcates Bethlehem, a trash strewn concrete scar decorated with graffiti.
Yousef is such a delightful man; hopefully we’ll see more of him and his family as they adjust to America and each other.