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On Lesbos, Dutch Volunteers Teach Migrants To Turn Boats Into Backpacks

  • Daniella Cheslow

MORIA, Greece -- Between canvas tents and laundry lines strung up on olive trees, Floor Nagler holds up a piece of gray fabric cut from a discarded rubber dinghy. A dozen Pakistanis and Iraqis study her every move to learn how to use rivets to form a seam.

"Make sure it's symmetrically folded and find where to punch the holes," Nagler tells them.

Amsterdam native Nagler, 24, says she noticed a need for rucksacks while helping migrants disembark from inflatable boats in Lesbos in January. They often lost their bags en route, and always left their life jackets and boats on the beaches. Nagler says she brought 20 kilograms of boat material back to Amsterdam, where she is studying textiles. She asked fellow Dutch artist Didi Aaslund, 27, to brainstorm a solution.

"I called Didi and I said, 'Let's make a bag because there's [lots] of material,'" Nagler recalls.

About 600,000 people fleeing wars in the Middle East or seeking better lives have landed on the shores of Lesbos since the refugee crisis began. It is the first European stop on their intended journey to Western Europe.

Nagler's bags are made from one folded piece of boat material, held together with rivets and clipped shut with buckles from life vests. Nagler says making a bag costs around $3 and requires no electricity.

On February 29, she and Aaslund began a weeklong bag-making workshop for migrants. They carried their punch pliers and riveting guns in homemade work belts made of rolled-up boat-rubber pouches strung onto black life-vest belts. They stashed scissors into black PVC lifeline holders, also salvaged from dinghies.

The two taught migrants staying at an improvised tent camp outside the Moria reception center near the capital city, Mytilini. Numbers at the tent camp fluctuate daily; on March 2, some 200 Pakistanis were among the residents, marooned after Greece classified them as economic migrants who are not entitled to the asylum process.

Nagler and Aaslund call their idea It Works, to reflect a pragmatic approach to a bag created by and for migrants. Their project is part of Oddysea, a new Greek organization that aims to make bags and wallets out of discarded boats and vests, and to sell the finished products to benefit migrants.

Raida Matar, a 13-year-old Yazidi refugee from Sinjar in Iraq, sits with a Spanish volunteer on a green tarp spread out on the rough dirt between tent stakes. Matar doesn't understand the English directions but learns by watching how to punch holes in forest-green boat fabric and to fasten the seams together with rivets. Finally, she attaches black life-vest straps to the bag and slips the finished product over her slight shoulders.

"We made the bag ourselves," she says. Her family is headed to Germany, she adds, "And we came over in boats like this."

PHOTO GALLERY: From Boats To Bags (click here)

Transforming boats and vests into bags is one of many unconventional solutions to the challenge of feeding, clothing, and sheltering migrants in an olive grove with no infrastructure and a limited budget. Volunteers have built a makeshift "shoe oven," using tin roofing to reflect sunlight onto shelves of shoes soaked from the sea voyage. Water for the kitchen is heated via a pipe coiled under decomposing olive leaves, which get hot as they decay. Life jackets serve as padding under canvas tents.

Marios Antriotis, spokesman for Lesbos Mayor Spyros Galinos, estimates the island has about 30,000 cubic meters of plastic from discarded boats and jackets. Sanitation workers can be seen puncturing and deflating boats at the port of Mytilini on the eastern coast. A mammoth orange "graveyard" of life jackets is piled up in northern Lesbos. Antriotis says he was delighted to hear about It Works; his office plans to preserve some vests and dinghies in a museum devoted to the role of Lesbos in welcoming migrants to Europe.

Syrian Amani, 19, arrived in Lesbos on February 28 after a terrifying two-hour journey from Turkey on a dinghy crammed with dozens of migrants, including many children. She hopes to study journalism in Germany.

"It's a good idea to make a bag from the boat," says Amani, who asks to omit her last name out of concern for her family in Damascus. "You kill the boat that tried to kill you."

Shamshaid Slamat, 19, is among dozens of people who watch this workshop. He says he fled Pakistan in January after terrorists attacked his university, where he studied computer science.

"I need a bag. I am looking at how they are making this bag and now I will try it," Slamat says, although he concedes he's not sure where he'll take it without Greek papers entitling him to travel.

Nagler says she hopes the workshop can help stuck residents like Slamat pass the time, and will foster communication between refugees and volunteers who do not speak the same language. She and Aaslund intend to leave behind boat fabric, patterns, and tools when they depart next week so volunteers and migrants can continue the project.

"I hope those people get to a place in Europe where they want to go," Nagler says of the migrants. "I hope they use the bags to travel."

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