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Refugee boats are given new life as bags in Berlin

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Syrian taylor Khaldoun al-Hussain at the Mimycri workshop in Berlin. afp

Refugee boats are given new life as bags in Berlin

Khaldoun Alhussain concentrates as he stitches a piece of grey rubber, leaning over his sewing machine in the workshop of the small Berlin-based registered non-profit association called Mimycri.

A border of yellow thread takes shape on the material that he works with an expert hand.

The grey material from rubber dinghies, abandoned by migrants on the beaches of Greek islands, is finding a second life in Berlin.

It is transformed by refugees into different sorts of bags, then sold on the internet.

Alhussain, a 34-year-old Syrian, is familiar with the robust and weather-resistant rubber that he now works with after being recovered in Greece.

Four years ago, he climbed into a makeshift boat made of the very same material to reach the Aegean island of Chios from the Turkish coast.

“There were many of us and the crossing was very, very dangerous,” says the tailor, who learnt his trade in garment factories in Damascus before he left to seek asylum in Germany.

Rafts to bags

Mimycri recovers inflatable rafts, abandoned on the shores of Chios and the nearby island of Lesbos, which both bore witness to the 2015 migration crisis when hundreds of thousands of refugees landed on Europe’s beaches.

At the peak of the crisis, Greece recorded up to 7,000 arrivals a day. While the number of crossings has slowed considerably since an agreement between the EU and Turkey in 2016, it still averages around 100 people per day.

On the spot, non-profit organisations recover the boats that litter the coast, along with discarded life jackets and clothing.

“We recover 90 per cent of the boats stranded on the coast,” says Toula Kitromilidi, Greek coordinator of the NGO Chios Eastern Shore Response Team.

“The rest are used by the locals,” he adds, indicating how for example farmers convert the boats’ rubber panels into tarpaulin covers.

Cut into large strips, the panels are sent to Berlin, cleaned and transformed into useful bags.

Customers “buy these bags because they tell a story, because they are more than just something you own”, says Vera Guenther, one of Mimycri’s two founders, in her bright workshop.

Heavy sewing machines hum in the background under shelves filled with rolls of rubber.

Each segment is unique, sometimes with stripes or marks that often tell their own tragic stories.

Mimycri’s customers, who snapped up some €120,000 ($132,578) worth of its wares last year, can indirectly learn “what is happening in Syria . . . and how many people have died or are still dying there”, adds Alhussain.

His goal is to bring his mother to Berlin from Syria where she is sick and alone.

As for the inhabitants of the Greek islands, “they are very happy [with our work] because they do not want their beaches to be covered with plastic waste”, says Guenther.

She gave up her job in the environmental sector to run Mimycri, which sells 11 products, with three per cent of sales donated to NGOs in Greece.

Its latest creation is a toiletry bag, which, like all the products it sells on the internet, is also sold in some shops in Berlin and Munich.

Helping hand

Guenther, 32, was among the Germans who came to offer their help to refugees as they arrived in droves at the country’s train stations in the summer of 2015.

“I wanted to be part of this new Germany that welcomes people who have lost their belongings, their homes and sometimes also their families,” she said.

During winter 2015-16, she left for Chios to help frightened migrants landing on the beaches after often harrowing journeys.

With a German passport, she could make the crossing from the Turkish coastal city, Izmir, to the Greek island in 30 minutes for €14 “while drinking a beer and taking a little nap”.

She was profoundly aware that Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans were risking their lives on makeshift rafts by paying at least 1,000 dollars to human traffickers.

With her partner, Nora Azzaoui, she spent several months on the island and returned to Berlin with a section of rubber in her luggage.

It was transformed into a bag and the idea to make the practical fashionable items was born.

The two young women managed to raise €43,000 ($48,227) in a crowdfunding scheme to bring their dream to life.

Now, mimycri employs five people, including a Syrian and a Pakistani.

“We want to change the way we look at refugees,” says Guenther. “These are people . . . who want to have a job, a house, just like all of us.”

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