In a workshop on the Greek island of Lesbos, a small group of migrants have found work transforming discarded life jackets into bags, pouches and wallets. They make a meager living selling these accessories created from a material that symbolizes the frightening, sometimes deadly, journey that they themselves took across the Mediterranean.
There are thousands of life jackets scattered across the Greek island of Lesbos, discarded by the lucky migrants who made it safely to European shores. A group of activists working with Lesvos Solidarity launched a sewing workshop where migrants transform these vests into accessories, which they then sell for between 12 and 35 euros.
Efi Latsoudi, a local living in Lesbos, co-founded the Safe Passage Bags project in December 2016. At first, the workshop was located in a so-called “solidarity camp”, populated by activists working to help the island’s migrants. Now, the workshop operates in a creative space in the center of town.
In 2015, there was a wave of new arrivals on the island. There were a lot of people in need, so we started organising workshops for them. There were also thousands of life jackets just scattered across the island. No one knew what to do with them.
Our first idea was that the people living in refugee camps could use the life jackets to make bags for their own personal use.
“Our aim is to give refugees their dignity back by giving them a job and a decent salary”
A Greek designer, who was unemployed at the time, designed the bags for us. Currently, there are eight refugees and two Greek citizens making bags at Mosaic, an arts space located in the town centre of Mytilène. These are real, official, long-term jobs. Our migrant employees pay taxes and have a social security number. They work five hours per week day and earn 600 euros per month.
We sell most of our products abroad. You can find them for sale in a few different museums and universities. There are also a few activist groups that sell them. We are working on building an ecommerce site, so that people can purchase them more easily. For the time being, we just sell directly to people who contact us on Facebook.
The prices are still the same, so that anyone who resells the bags can’t make a profit from them.
Our team makes between 600 and 800 bags a month. Each week, we end up using between 150 and 200 life jackets. The sales go up and down, but we tend to sell the most around Christmas-time. Since our launch, we’ve sold close to 9,000 accessories.
We got this idea because we wanted to reduce the amount of waste on the island, but we also wanted a creative and positive response to the crisis. It’s also a really good way to give refugees their dignity back through a job and a decent salary.
According to Hellenic Coastguards, about 120 migrants arrive each day on the Greek islands located just across the water from Turkey, including Lesbos.