Refugee boats given new life as bags in Berlin

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Vera Guenther, co-founder of the small Berlin-based company ‘Mimycri’, looks at plastic pieces at Mimycri’s workshop. (AFP)
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Vera Guenther, the co-founder of ‘Mimycri’, at the company’s workshop in Berlin. (AFP)
Updated 12 August 2019

Refugee boats given new life as bags in Berlin

  • Material from rubber dinghies, abandoned by migrants on the beaches of Greek islands, is being transformed by refugees in Berlin into different sorts of bags, then sold on the Internet

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.
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 European Union and Turkey in 2016, it still averages around 100 people per day.
On the spot, non-profit organizations recover the boats that litter the coast, along with discarded life jackets and clothing.
“We recover 90 percent 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 euros ($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 percent 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.
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 euros “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 euros 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.”


Alaska man discovers 50-year-old message in bottle from Russian Navy

Updated 19 August 2019

Alaska man discovers 50-year-old message in bottle from Russian Navy

  • Then Russian Navy Capt. Anatolii Prokofievich Botsanenko wrote the letter when he was a 36-year-old aboard the Sulak
ANCHORAGE, Alaska: A man discovered a 50-year-old letter in a bottle from the Russian Navy on the shores of western Alaska.
Tyler Ivanoff found the handwritten Russian letter early this month while gathering firewood near Shishmaref about 600 miles (966 kilometers) northwest of Anchorage, television station KTUU reported.
“I was just looking for firewood when I found the bottle,” Tyler Ivanoff said. “When I found the bottle, I had to use a screwdriver to get the message out.”
Ivanoff shared his discovery on Facebook where Russian speakers translated the message to be a greeting from a Cold War Russian sailor dated June 20, 1969. The message included an address and a request for a response from the person who finds it.
Reporters from the state-owned Russian media network, Russia-1, tracked down the original writer, Capt. Anatolii Prokofievich Botsanenko, KTUU reported.
He was skeptical he wrote the note until he saw his signature on the bottom.
“There — exactly!” he exclaimed.
The message was sent while the then 36-year-old was aboard the Sulak, Botsanenko said. Botsanenko shed tears when the Russian television reporter told him the Sulak was sold for scrap in the 1990s.
Botsanenko also showed the reporter some souvenirs from his time on the ship, including the autograph of the wife of a famous Russian spy and Japanese liquor bottles, the latter kept over his wife’s protests.
Ivanoff’s discovery of the bottle was first reported by Nome radio station KNOM.