“From the camps of Jordan to Hollywod!” shouted the attention-grabbing headline. Academy award-winning costume designer Jacqueline Durran worked with 27 women at the refugee camp in Jordan to embroider all the costumes for the new movie Mary Magdalene, starring Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, and Tahar Rahim. “The costume designer spotted us on Instagram, asked for samples, and then hired us!” exclaims Roberta Ventura, SEP Jordan founder. The female artisans belonging to SEP, standing for Social Enterprise Project, are refugees who practice the cross-stitch technique passed down through generations. Angelina Jolie, UNHCR special envoy, was one of the first to bring attention to their work, following a pioneering fashion show in support of refugee artisans.
Describing life at the Jerash camp, which hosts some 50,000 people—half of which are women—prior to SEP, Ventura says, “Most families relied mainly or solely on aid given their status. The Jerash camp residents have limited access to education and health services. SEP artists have on average five children; some have up to ten. Women at the camp have to take care of feeding and schooling children so their day is long and tiring. Embroidering is a precious moment of quality time alone or with their friends.” Gaza refugees have been living at the camp since 1968—four generations. With high unemployment, unsafe housing, and reliance on aid for roughly 50 years, clinical depression has become the most commonly diagnosed illness. Embroidery has become akin to therapy.
SEP Jordan Operations manager Nawal Aradeh shares her experience, “At the beginning, when I heard there was work coming to the camp, I was very doubtful and didn’t take it too seriously. Many people had approached us before, presenting projects and promising work but never keeping their promises. We soon found that what we were promised was executed exactly as we were told. SEP and I are now one. It has become an important part of my life and the lives of all the ladies with us. At the start of my life, for 15 years, I was like a bee that buzzes without any results. But now, our situation has improved significantly. I have a job, a stable income, and SEP has helped me build my house, and help put one of my daughters through university.” Ventura affirms that the team’s management team earns an income, which is a multiple of minimum salary and each artist is paid per piece at a price that is higher than market average. The top artists earn a performance bonus related to the company results.
Ventura launched SEP in 2013 when she “felt a calling.” At the time there was nothing comparable to SEP in the market. “I could not just stand and watch while thousands of artists who happen to be refugees were living off humanitarian aid, unable to monetize their talent. SEP started with the simple idea of merging Middle Eastern talent with Italian style. Bring the quality standards of embroidery back to its golden age of the 1800s, while improving the lives of refugee communities.” SEP currently works with around 300 artisans. A new pilot training project with a group of Syrian refugees in Azraq camp, will add a new technique to the collections, which include fashion and home. Luxury fabrics like cashmere, linen, and Carriagi yarn are sourced from suppliers in Italy while the Kuffyieh is produced in Jordan. Currently sold at Harrods and in Gstaad, and online www.sepjordan.com