What do you do with the hundreds of thousands of life jackets discarded by refugees that landed up on your shores? Earlier this year in Greece, volunteers on the island of Lesbos pondered the same problem and came up with an amazing idea: repurposing the jackets to make mattresses for the same refugees who brought them.
Danish volunteers Mads Damgaard Peterson and Anezka Sokol came up with concept when they realized that the discarded vests, which they were using to sit on because the ground was cold, could also be used to help the refugees who were sleeping directly on the hard ground.
"We were seeing this enormous problem on the island with all the mess, at the same time as seeing all the refugees sleeping on the ground," Damgaard Peterson told the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. The jackets are made from closed-cell foam, which means that they’re packed with tiny air bubbles, and therefore they make great insulators, as well as being padded.
The pair took cable-ties and lashed together prototypes, a simple mattress made by tying three jackets together. They made 20 and gave them to refugees waiting at the Moria refugee registration center just after the New Year, when outside temperatures had dropped to 21˚F.
Some refugees didn’t like the idea at first. After all, most of the discarded jackets had been heaped onto the municipal dump. They also brought back bad memories of the refugees’ dangerous flight from home. So a second iteration of the design used the groundsheet of a tent to hide the jackets and overcome hygiene concerns.
According to UNHCR, over 1 million migrants and refugees came to Europe by sea in 2015 and half of them landed at Lesbos. This means that there is no shortage of raw materials for the mattresses, with hundreds of thousands of jackets that would otherwise go to waste.
There are many projects to help refugees, but one of the most important criteria is that you need to help a lot of people in a short time. This has led to simple designs like this jacket that turns into a tent, or the NoBorders backpack, fashioned from discarded rubber dinghies. And nothing’s faster than zip-tying a bunch of discarded jackets together to make beds. It’s the kind of smart, on-the-ground thinking that can really help people who need it.