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New Life for Discarded Vests

In this photo taken on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016 finished bags made out of life vests are displayed in Pikpa Camp near the port of Mytilene on the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos. A group of volunteers at a refugee shelter has launched a project to make handbags, totes, and messenger bags out of the brightly colored vests, hoping to raise money for charity efforts on the island. (AP Photo/Santi Palacios)

Life vests are one of the lasting symbols of Europe’s refugee crisis. While they enable people to flee dangerous conditions they can overwhelm a town or village upon their arrival, where beaches become a dumping ground for the life-saving protectors.

In Lesbos, the Greek island that took in more than 500,000 refugees in 2015, they have come up with a solution. Volunteers at a refugee shelter launched a project to use the vests to make handbags, totes, and messenger bags. According to Lena Altinoglou, an English teacher who volunteers at the shelter, the project was aimed at helping refugees cover their living expenses and also to retain a sense of dignity. “These people don’t want to become beggars … It’s important for people here to be able to work, create something, to make a living and help other (refugee) families,” she said.

The vests are also a reminder of the dangerous journey from Turkey to Lesbos. “Many do reach our camp safely, but others don’t. So it’s a reminder of the need to find a better solution.”