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.


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.


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.”


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.




Metro Reporter, Fall 2018


Haley Woods’ Home Is Where She Goes

Haley Woods, 39, is an avid traveler who founded the very successful Facebook group Girls LOVE Travel, commonly referred to as GLT. Officially created on December 30th of 2015, the group reassembles a female-only community from 13 to 90-year-olds that enjoys traveling. During a long layover in Amsterdam on her way from Japan to Morocco, The Amsterdammer had the opportunity to conduct an interview with GLT’s founder.

At the age of twelve, Woods set off on her first international flight to attend a dance trip in Japan. Little did she know that almost three decades and above thirty countries later she would come back to explore the island while being the founder of a group of more than half-a-million members. For seven years, her home has been wherever she travels to. Recalling her debut at GLT, Woods remembers looking for a community that fit her interests best. “I was lonely, I was nomadic, I was traveling around the world and […] I didn’t have a sense of community on my own,” she said. In only two years, the Girls LOVE Travel Facebook group has reached over 540,000 members who constantly share experiences and opinions about travel-related topics. However, Woods admits never planning any of it, “it just happened.” No advertising is needed, the group grows on a daily basis, having about 800 new posts and members every day. “It’s crazy how engaging our community is,” Woods said. In a 28 days period, there are on average 1.8 million posts, comments, and reactions. Principally based in the United States of America and Australia, the demographics of the group are as impressive as the engagement of the members: from a list limited to 100 countries, 100 appear. “There are some groups that don’t need a hundred countries [in the analytics]” she reported, “[…] you have to imagine that there is the potential that we are in every single country.”


Haley Woods holds a sign with Girls LOVE Travel’s logo at the Takeshita Street in Tokyo, Japan, on late February during her trip to the Pacific island. Courtesy of Haley Woods / Girls LOVE Travel

The success of GLT took Haley Woods to the Facebook headquarters twice in 2017, where she discussed shortly her projects with CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and elaborated on her aspirations for GLT with COO Sheryl Sandberg and co-founder Chris Hughes. “I can’t speak higher of the Facebook community, they are just fantastic,” she affirms. Today, GLT is present in several social media platforms besides Facebook such as Instagram or Twitter, and was able to create a partnership with Overnight, a platform where the members can share their homes with trusted people, or in this case, females from Girls LOVE Travel with each other.

The Facebook group still being the central focus of GLT, Woods explains it has been described as a “conversational Google.” Indeed, if a woman has a question related in some way to traveling, she will post it in the group and most likely receive an answer right away. In the future, Woods hopes to pursue that sense of connectivity and wants to encourage the members to bring “the online connection to offline friendships.”

As the community grew, women found a place to organize meetups around the world and started traveling together. From Iceland to Cuba or Thailand, the community is setting off to Antarctica later this year where 111 female travelers are expected to join the trip. The purpose: to bring together women who share a common love for traveling. “Our trips […] [are] just an extension of the social dynamic of the group,” Woods explained. In 2018, she has already been to Japan, the United States, the Netherlands, Morocco, and she is headed to Egypt by the end of the month. “I am doing my research,” she said. Eventually, she hopes to find on her way the countries where the next GLT trip will take place. However, she believes that “the best thing that has happened (to the community) wasn’t the trips because [they] are not reinventing a wheel.” Instead, Girls LOVE Travel aims support travel companies by encouraging people to travel. From the GLT Instagram Story to the constant inspirational stories posted in the Facebook group, the shareability of common experiences and support through a group dedicated to traveling has encouraged the community to either continue or start their traveling journey. In addition, Woods hopes to find a way to create an unspoken connection between the members of the community. To do so, she wants to encourage women to wear the group’s merchandise in which the trademarked logo will help the females from the community to “spot” each other while traveling.

As of the connectivity enhanced by GLT, the Facebook group’s founder finds herself fascinated by the results the posts have had. “My favorite stories are the stories of the community support.” In early 2018, she remembers Valerie Wilson, a travel blogger and member of Girls LOVE Travel, who was writing a report in Switzerland. Unfortunately, her trip merged to an emergency room waiting to get her appendix removed. “Is anyone around? I’m all alone and could use a friend to help me be less scared”, posted Wilson in the group. The next day, two members of the group showed their support by going to her room, helping her pick up her prescriptions and to go back to her hotel. “When we have had this kind of stories being shared, when I hear a girl telling me that she got her first passport because […] she feels more comfortable travelling alone [thanks to the] group or when I hear about multi-generations in the community […], it continues to blow my mind” Woods said, impressed by the turning GLT has taken. Alongside a group of moderators and 200 volunteers, Haley Woods wishes nothing but to continue respecting the three pillars of GLT: “safety, socializing and support for the female traveler,” as she said. “No matter what happens, […] as long as the pillars are met, we’re all set.”


Founder and Editor-in-Chief

Isabel Bonnet is a 21-year-old second-year student in communication science at UvA. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Amsterdammer. Before its creation, she worked as a photo editor at the Independent Florida Alligator and did an internship at Le Monde.


An Interview with World Press Photo of the Year Winner Ronaldo Schemidt


Linh Dinh / Staff Photographer

Friday the 13th of April, the World Press Photo exhibition was officially kicked off in the Nieuwe Kerk on the Dam in Amsterdam with at the center of attention the winner of this year’s World Press Photo of the year, 47-year old Venezuelan photographer Ronaldo Schemidt. His photo featuring a man named José Victor Salazar Balza, who caught fire because of an exploded motorcycle in the middle of violent clashes between protesters against the ruling President Nicolás Maduro and the police in Caracas, Venezuela. The Amsterdammer got a chance to talk to the man of the hour about his work as a photographer in Venezuela and his opinion on winning this prestigious award. 

First of all, congratulations on winning the award. Was there ever a moment you thought this photo might be a prize-winning photo?

When I was taking this picture at the time, I was not thinking about the possibility of this picture ever ending up in a contest such as this one. It is something you can not think about when taking pictures in these kinds of situations. In those moments, all you should do is focus on your work.


Linh Dinh / Staff Photographer

The jury took into consideration the fact that the man in this picture is wearing some sort of mask, which, according to them, represents the facelessness of the events in Venezuela. It is not just one man burning, the whole country has been set aflame. Is this something you think of when looking at the picture? 

No, not at all. The impression I have of this photo is still the same. All I feel when looking at this picture again is compassion for the man in the picture. I still feel sorry for the horrible tragedy he suffered and the indescribable pain he must have gone through. The mask in itself does not add much for me, the fire and the unbearable pain it inflicts attracts all my attention every single time I look at this image. Therefore, I am very glad that I have been able to come into contact with the man in this picture a few days after taking the picture to find out if he is still alive.

How is he doing?

Just after the explosion, he was taken care of by some paramedics, who took him to the hospital. As expected, he has suffered quite a bit from the events of that night. He suffered first and second degree burns all over his body but did luckily survive the fire.

The situation at the riots that night was critical and you had to put yourself in danger to take this picture. Would you consider this a regular part of the job?

I acknowledge that I sometimes find myself in dangerous situations, but this only usually happens after the fact when I am reviewing the pictures I took. In the heat of the moment, I just want to do my job as a news photographer as good as possible. I still feel the same way about this and will want to continue to do work as a photographer in Venezuela, I just don’t know if Maduro’s government will let me.


Linh Dinh / Staff Photographer


Metro reporter, Spring 2018