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Hollywood film features Palestinian refugee craftswomen’s creations

Artists left to follow their hearts as they design patterns

By Camille Dupire - Feb 03,2018 - Last updated at Feb 03,2018

The poster of Universal Pictures’ film ‘Mary Magdalene’ features a comment by the film’s costume designer on the creativity of the designers, who live in a refugee camp in Jordan (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

AMMAN — The creations of 27 Palestinian craftswomen from Jerash camp will be featured in the Universal Pictures’ film “Mary Magdalene”, an international production featuring world famous Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix.

“We are so honoured to see the work of these 27 SEP artists being featured in this movie, which is a rendition of a story that took place in the land where their own ancestors lived,” said Roberta Ventura, founder of SEP Jordan, an organisation that empowers Palestinian refugee women through the creation of hand-embroidered accessories. 

Started in 2013 with 10 women under the motto “Every Stitch Tells a Story”, SEP Jordan has grown to help some 300 women regain a sustainable income and improve their and their families’ living conditions.

“Dependence on aid makes refugees vulnerable to certain extremist groups. Through my work with educational projects, I realised the danger of education without employment opportunity,” Ventura told The Jordan Times, stressing the importance of empowering women to be in charge of the entire process.

For Asma Aradeh, SEP quality control manager at Jerash camp, working with SEP has been a chance to “constantly improve” and develop new skills.”At the beginning of this journey, we did not pay much attention to detail. We were satisfied if our work looked pretty and that was all. But, with SEP, we learned perfection in our products. Now, we want each product to be perfect in terms of embroidery, cleanliness, and measurements,” she said.

This thorough attention to details greatly contributed to the success of these products, which are currently sold in retails stores all across the globe. 

“It was an incredibly rewarding experience working with the team of artists at SEP – their talent far surpassed my expectations… the result of each woman’s unique creativity and skill had an incredible subtlety and beauty,” said Jacqueline Durran, costume designer in the Mary Magdalena movie.

Durran, who is an Academy Award Winner designer, added: “The work had a quality that we couldn’t have found anywhere else, and it became a key part of our creation of the ancient world of the film.”

“We are looking to disrupt the ‘pity purchase’,” Ventura said, stressing that “all SEP artists are trained at the SEP-Tamari Academy established at the camp, where they learn the technique details, which date back to the 1800’s, the golden years of Palestinian embroidery. The result is a premium-product, which restores pride, emotional and economic independence”.

For Ventura, the beauty of the products lies in their uniqueness: “Each of the artists can express their personality in the creative process, they design their own patterns and are free to create anything from their inspiration, which gives unique products, each different from the others.”

“SEP has not only created a source of income for us; it has also allowed us to develop our hobbies. It has helped us to bring out all the creativity we have within us. I am proud to be sharing our embroidery, our heritage and our tradition. Through our Palestinian heritage, we show the world what a strong and resilient people we are,” said Asma Nmeilat, finishing officer at SEP.

Ventura recalled how one of the women told her a year ago: “Do you realise that when I embroider, I pour all my emotions into the work?”

“This made me realise that each SEP creation is like a message in a bottle, a link between the artist and the rest of the world. We are creating powerful ‘emotional networks’ between the artists and our customers,” Ventura explained, noting that “although part of our management team is Italian, all producers are refugees in the Middle East, making the brand very cross-culturally aware”.

SEP Jordan, which has been featured in magazines such as Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, ELLE, Architectural Digest as well as newspapers including The Times, The Telegraph and The Guardian, is partnering with a number of outlets around the globe, spreading the story of each of these women.

The inclusion of SEP Jordan products in the international production “Mary Magdalene”, which will be released on March 16, is an “emotionally charged” testimony to the work of these 27 artists, according to Nawal Aradeh and Dua’h Siam, who directed the women for this collaboration.


“SEP celebrates the artists’ Palestinian heritage, as well as the central role of women within their family and community. Being featured in this film further reflects how SEP artists have become change makers in their communities,” Ventura concluded.

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