Interviews

Objects with a Story: Refugees’ Life Vests Become Design Items

The Dutch social enterprise Makers Unite helps refugees to build a career by upcycling waste material collected on Greek shores.

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Refugee tailor works on turning a life vest into a travel bag. Mathilda Hollreiser / Staff

“It is good to give a new life to something that helped in saving people’s lives,” said Moutasem Alawad. The 38-year-old, who comes from Daraa in Syria, arrived in 2015 to the Netherlands as a refugee, where he spent one year moving from one refugee camp to another, crossing the whole country. When he was finally able to settle down in Amsterdam, his family joined him. Today, Alawad works as a volunteer for the Dutch social enterprise Makers Unite, which recycles old life jackets into design items in collaboration with the Re-Vest Life movement. Alawad sews laptop sleeves, bags, and other travel accessories, which are 100 percent made of life vests that were used by refugees as they crossed the Mediterranean sea. “I used one of these life vests to come here,” he said. “This work makes me think of all those people who made the same journey than I did. Some were lucky and arrived, while others did not.”

In 2015 only, around 800,000 refugees and immigrants arrived on the Greek shores. This humanitarian crisis was accompanied by an environmental crisis, as 700,000 life vests were abandoned on the Greek coasts of Chios and Lesbos alone. Makers Unite had the innovative idea of collecting these life vests and transforming them into something else. Working alongside the Greek NGO Odyssea, which aims to clean up Greek shores, they brought 5000 life vests to Amsterdam. In a little tailor workshop close to Amstel station, refugees gave a new life to these life-vests by turning them into practical travel items.

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Mathilda Hollreiser / Staff

Revenues from sales mostly support Makers Unite’s social inclusion program, which helps newcomers with a creative background to build a career. In a 6-week program, groups from 10 to 12 refugees are driven to identify their abilities and get in contact with local entrepreneurs. The tailor workshop, which includes 8 hours of weekly volunteer work, is part of the program. Since the start of the social inclusion program in 2016, 72 newcomers have been involved. In less than two years, Makers Unite has found paid jobs for about 10% of them.

Them Schweichler, director and co-founder of Makers Unite, has a background in social and product design. Schweichler believes their travel accessories bring on themselves an insightful message: “We want our items to tell a story about a journey. We do not make products, we create objects with a story,” he said. “With our program, we try to give newcomers the chance of expressing their ambitions and, at the same time, help them build a real career.” Makers Unite aims to completely integrate the people who just arrived to the Netherlands and their culture. Indeed, with the language barrier and the lack of connections, it can be challenging for newcomers to adapt easily and fast. “Imagine arriving here as a newcomer,” Schweichler explained. “You do not speak Dutch, you have no connections with the locals. You find a job, but you do not like it. In theory, you are integrated, because on an economical point of view you are part of the system. But you do not feel that you are part of the society.” The 32-year-old director of this initiative believes it is a phenomena that persists and gets more important with the time. “People get an accelerated entry into the job market, but they do not feel that they are part of it. They do not feel included. And the feeling of inclusion is the key to create a society that works.”

Makers Unite relies on two crucial values: inclusion and sustainability. “With sustainable we mean thinking globally, but acting locally,” explained Schweichler. “We do not focus on fighting European laws on asylum. We believe that these laws are very wrong, but we cannot do much to change them. However, we can do a lot about people here.”

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Thami Schweichler, director, and co-founder of Makers Unite. Mathilda Hollreiser / Staff

Makers Unite sells between 100 and 200 products every month, mostly through their website. Their team also takes part in different initiatives promoted by the City of Amsterdam. A group of newcomers attended the 16th edition of the Dutch Design Week with the exhibition “Crafting: the New and the Local,” a discussion on the role of crafts in enabling more inclusive societies. The organisation also promoted the exhibition “Geef ons het museum,” in collaboration with Stedelijk Museum and the Forum of European Cultures in which 17 artists issued from the social inclusion program spend one month in a temporary workspace offered by the museum. They were able to work on their own projects and having the possibility to show their talent. The exhibition is currently being shown up until June 1st.

 

As the tailor workshop volunteers commemorate the month of Ramadan, the atmosphere stays convivial despite their tiredness. Alawad remembers the first time he spent a holiday in the Netherlands after his journey from Syria with his family. “Every time my daughter heard the sound of a bomb, she started crying and hid her head under her arms,” he said. “During our first New Year’s Eve in the Netherlands, she did the same when she heard the sounds of fireworks. We had to explain that it was a game, that here it is not like Syria.” Today, his 4-year-old daughter attends a Dutch school and Alawad’s wife gave birth to their second child.

 

 

 

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