Embroidering survival in Palestinian refugee camps

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Though you might lose the world around you, you still have your hands. The Palestinian refugees have been living in refugee camps for almost sixty years. Women maintain their culture partly through embroidery. Luckily, there’s an organisation that can assist in helping their work find a market. For a modest price, you can obtain not only a beautiful object of use, but also a message of survival.

Inaash was founded and registered in Lebanon since 1969 as a non-governmental organization by a devoted group of Lebanese and Palestinian ladies motivated by their deep concerns for the deprived families in the camps. Over the years Inaash has trained around 2000 women up to a professional level.

Inaash aims to preserve and promote traditional Palestinian embroidery, and create jobs for women in the camps thus helping them to be economically independent. The embroidered items are made by Palestinian refugee women who were expelled from Palestine after Israeli occupation of their country in 1948. They moved to Lebanon and settled in camps. Some of them knew how to embroider: as young daughters they grew up watching their mothers. Others were taught how to embroider by the Inaash art committee.

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Embroidery is a traditional craft practice for Palestinians. Designs are passed on from mother to daughter, each generation changing a little and adding new inspirations. The repertoire is constantly changing and evolving. It varies from place to place in Palestine. Inspiration for patterns came from uniforms, creamies, printed fabrics, architectural motifs and nature.

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Many names of designs come from village life and are symbols of certain concepts, such as eternity and wealth. There are more than 200 floral and geometric motifs passed on from one generation to another. Many objects were embroidered, including cushions, runners, dresses—some for daily wear and others for special occasions like weddings. Embroidery dresses are not only beautiful but also told stories. Women chose what statements their clothes should make. Some lavish embroidered dresses have over 200, 000 cross-stitches.

The art committee of Inaash prepares the design, colors and provides the ladies in the camps with the raw materials needed (canvas, threads, silk). Women are paid by piece, finish the product and sell it. Inaash is hoping to develop its program by cooperation with volunteer fashion designers to bring in new ideas and by expanding the marketing of its products.

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The story of Samar, who embroidered the tea cosy for the World of Small Things:

My name is Samar. I am 50 years old. A mother for four children. I am from Java in Palestine. My family came to south of Lebanon after the Israeli occupied our country in 1948. My grandmother managed to save some of her beautiful traditional embroidered dresses and brought them with her. They were the most valuable things she ever had! I grew up in Rushdie camp watching my mother and her friends. Embroidering is an identity, it is our identity. It is part of my life not only to support my family financially but also feel proud participating in preserving our traditional heritage. In the afternoons, my kids study on their own and I socialize with my friends each having an item to embroider. If and only if those items can speak… they will tell you all the stories of the neighborhood!

I enjoy distributing colors and deciding what to put and where. It needs creativity. The most enjoyable moment is when I look at my finished lovely work! I do it with love that is why it is always wonderful! This tea cozy took me 120 hours (on average) I used DMC threads. My challenge for you is to count the number of cross-stitches! This tea cozy should only be enjoyed by people who appreciated hand work.


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One of Samar’s tea cosies.

Thanks to Souad Amin for the material for this post. Souad works with the Association for the Development of Palestinian Camps (Inaash) where she develops products made by Palestinian refugees living in camps in southern Lebanon.

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