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.”


Tulips from Amsterdam? A blooming scam, says new probe

This file photo taken on March 6, 2003 shows bulbs at the flower market in Amsterdam. (AFP)
Updated 16 October 2019

Tulips from Amsterdam? A blooming scam, says new probe

  • Tulip bulbs should only be sold between August to December and planted before the start of the (northern hemisphere) winter, in order for the flowers to bloom in spring

THE HAGUE: Tourists are being ripped off at Amsterdam’s famous flower market, with just one percent of all bulbs sold at the floating bazaar ever producing a blossom, investigators said Tuesday.
A probe commissioned by the Dutch capital’s municipality and tulip growers also found that often only one flower resembled the pictures on the packaging like color, and that there were fewer bulbs than advertised.
“The probe showed that there is chronic deception of consumers,” at the sale of tulip bulbs at the flower market, the Royal General Bulb Growers’ Association (KAVB) said.
“Millions of tourists and day-trippers are being duped,” KAVB chairman Rene le Clercq said in a statement.
Amsterdam and the KAVB have now referred the matter to the Dutch consumer watchdog.
The Amsterdam flower market is one of the city’s most famous landmarks and dates from around 1862, when flower sellers sailed their barges up the Amstel River and moored them in the “Singel” to sell their goods.
Its fame inspired the popular song “Tulips from Amsterdam,” best known for a 1958 version by British entertainer Max Bygraves.
Today the market comprises of a number of fixed barges with little greenhouses on top. Vendors not only sell tulip bulbs but also narcissus, snowdrops, carnations, violets, peonies and orchids.
But of 1,363 bulbs bought from the Singel and then planted, just 14 actually bloomed, the investigation said.
Investigators found a similar problem along the so-called “flower bulb boulevard” in Lisse, a bulb-field town south of Amsterdam where the famous Keukenhof gardens are also situated.
Since first imported from the Ottoman Empire 400 years ago, tulips “have become our national symbol and the bulb industry a main player in the Dutch economy,” said Le Clercq.
But the “deception about the tulip bulbs is a problem that has been existing for the past 20 years,” he added.

The victims are often tourists, KAVB director Andre Hoogendijk said.
“A tourist who buys a bad bulb is not likely to come back,” he told Amsterdam’s local AT5 news channel.
Vendors at the market told AT5 that complaints were known.
“There are indeed stalls here that sell rubbish. That is to everyone’s disadvantage, because it portrays the whole flower market in a bad light,” one unidentified vendor said.
But a spokesperson for the City of Amsterdam said that all vendors were being investigated “and that the results are shocking.”
“So to say that it is only a few stalls is not true,” the spokesperson told AFP in an email.
The probe took place earlier in the year during springtime, the spokesperson said.
“The issue is that you shouldn’t even sell tulip bulbs during the spring. No decent florist shop in Holland does that.”
Tulip bulbs should only be sold between August to December and planted before the start of the (northern hemisphere) winter, in order for the flowers to bloom in spring.