The beaches of the Greek island of Lesbos are littered with bright orange life jackets, left behind by the thousands of refugees who arrive daily in the hope of finding sanctuary from war, poverty, and oppression in the Middle East and North Africa. Greenpeace has already tried to make something of them, working with groups such as Sea-Watch and the Boat Refugee Foundation to turn about 3,000 of the discarded garments into a massive peace sign on New Year’s Day—a “message of hope,” the environmental nonprofit said. More practical, however, are the efforts of a group of United Nations volunteers, who are refashioning the jackets into insulated mattresses for migrants seeking some—any—form of shelter.
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“We were sitting on them because the ground was cold and we thought, ‘let’s make a mattress.’ We had the cable ties already and in five minutes we had a product,” said Anezka Sokol, a volunteer from Denmark. “It’s a closed-cell material, that’s why you can use it in a life vest. It insulates pretty well because it’s full of air.”
Sokol and fellow Dane Damgaard Peterson created their first prototype by stringing three jackets together in a row. The duo made 20, distributing them at the Moria refugee registration center where the refugees often have to queue for several days.
“People are staying in tents and have nothing to lie on. It was -6 degrees centigrade [21 degrees Fahrenheit] the day after New Year’s and you just don’t want to be on the ground,” Sokol said.
Despite initial challenges—the refugees were initially skeptical because they viewed the jackets as a reminder of their grueling journey across the sea, for instance—the team is now working to develop an interlocking design that can be laid beneath the groundsheet of a tent, creating a comfortable, insulated, and fire-retardant surface that can also easily wiped clean.
“Inside I’m a big, big environmentalist and it breaks my heart to see so many resources going to waste,” Sokol added.