A/D/O by MINI | Refugee boats become backpacks



Refugee boats become backpacks

Berlin non-profit design label Mimycri transforms refugee boats abandoned on the coasts of Greece into bags and backpacks, in hopes of sparking more dialog about migration.

Nora Azzaoui and Vera Günther, the duo that founded Mimycri in 2017, are aware that the rubber boat material they’re currently using to produce bags carries the dark undertones of the tough, and sometimes deadly, journey that came before it. However, by transforming the discarded material into functional products, the two friends – who recently won the Women in Business Award at the 2019 Women of Europe Awards – want to inject new, more hopeful narratives into the material.

“We call Mimycri a ‘design ad-venture’ with a social impact,” Azzaoui told The Journal. “We use existing materials to design products and stimulate conversations about important social issues.”

In 2015, Azzaoui and Günther traveled to Greece to volunteer on the beaches of Chios. It was the year that more than one million refugees and migrants, fleeing war and persecution, reached Europe by sea, according to figures by the UN Refugee Agency. Many of them arrived on the Greek islands of Lesvos, Chios, Kos, Samos and Leros. 

The two volunteers were stationed on the shoreline of Chios and helped welcome and take care of the people arriving by boat, who typically reached the island at night. During the day, Azzaoui and Günther cleaned beaches, by picking up the life jackets and broken rubber dinghies left on land and throwing them away.

Incredibly moved by the people they encountered and what they saw during their volunteer experiences, Azzaoui and Günther were motivated to contribute to the situation in a meaningful way after returning home. They believed that doing something small was better than doing nothing at all. 

So the duo brainstormed ways to take action and it wasn’t until they gave a piece of the rubber boat material they brought back with them to a friend in Germany, who turned it into a small practical bag, that they saw the potential in the material.

Günther, who previously worked for the UN in Paris, said in a TED talk in 2018 that this first bag was “the most beautiful thing in the world” to them. That’s when the pair realized that not only did the material carry powerful human stories with them, it was strong, durable and symbolic of the changes rippling through European society.

“It resembled the idea that something bad can be seen as something good, that something perceived as negative can also have some positive aspects to it,” she added. What started as an idea between the two eventually became a successful crowdfunding campaign that raised €43,000 in 2017.

To obtain the discarded rubber boat material, Mimycri now collaborates with two NGOs – one based in Chios and one in Lesvos – that provide emergency aid and support to arriving refugees as well as recover the inflatable rafts left on the shores.

“Once they have enough materials, they send it to us and we sort them. There’s a lot of black and grey, but also some very colorful pieces. We never really know what we’ll get because we’re not putting orders or anything like that,” explained Azzaoui, who worked as a strategy and innovation consultant prior to starting Mimycri. “Then the materials are cut, wash and sewn by hand here in Berlin.”

In addition to conveying stories and messages through its products, a core part of Mimycri is about creating job opportunities for newcomers, showcasing their talents and supporting their integration into German society. Currently, Mimycri employs six people from five different countries and is supported by a network of volunteers. Abid Ali, a seasoned tailor who fled Pakistan, has been working with Mimycri to make bags and backpacks since the very beginning. Later on, Khaldoun Alhusain, a tailor from Syria, joined to help create and design products.

“We also have co-creation sessions where locals and migrants come together to develop new products and designs,” said Azzaoui. “We’ve seen that bringing people together to create something can be a very powerful experience for everyone involved.” At the moment, Mimycri offers twelve products, spanning fanny packs and laptop cases to backpacks and tote bags, that are available at its online shop and in various boutique stores in Berlin and Munich.

Looking ahead in the coming years, the Mimycri team is hoping to collaborate more with other organizations, whether that means co-designing products, using waste materials from other companies or hosting workshops to spark dialogue on sustainability and migration.

“We’re aiming to create a bigger impact,” said Azzaoui. “And for us, impact means creating opportunities for newcomers that have difficulties finding a job, reducing waste and reaching more people with our message.”

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