For the first few months of the migrant crisis, Ntinos didn’t come to the coast of Lesbos. He had work to do and mouths to feed. Plus, driving to the coast takes at least an hour from his community in the center of the small Greek island. The world’s media and governments monitored the macro realities of the influx—how many refugees, from where, with what goals for settlement. But others zoomed in on the micro level: discarded items scattered along the coast after migrants moved on, a valuable resource hiding in plain sight.
With groups amounting to one-tenth of the island’s 90,000 residents arriving by boat on peak days, those remnants quickly piled up. Half a million people are estimated to have crossed through Lesbos alone in 2015.
On a crisp, sunny morning in January, now some five months into the surge of migrants, Ntinos stands ankle deep in the Aegean Sea. Across the strait, the picturesque Turkish coast rises above the water, some six kilometers away. Storms had kept smugglers and migrants holed up on the Turkish side; another night of costs and risks for both. Over the next two days of clear skies, some 40 boats, each carrying roughly 50 people, will land on a small stretch of cobble beach near the tiny port of Skala Sikaminias.
Ntinos watches as a boat bobs closer—one of three now a kilometer out on the horizon. Throngs of international volunteers try to count the vertical lines made by bright orange life jackets, stacked vertically from the black rim of the dinghy, to speculate how many people will arrive today. Most of the life vests are fakes, made in the Turkish criminal economy and effectively useless for anything but guessing numbers from shore. If anything goes wrong, volunteers must coordinate a rescue quickly, so they keep an extra close eye on the arrivals.
The boat’s driver struggles to keep a straight course. He is likely a migrant who has never touched an outboard motor until today, much less on an overloaded boat. Smugglers often promise refugees the ride across, only to abandon ship at the last second and point toward Greece. As the orange lines zig zag, the growing crowd of volunteers attempts to scream and signal the boat straight.
Eventually, the packed boat gets close enough to discern small details. Soaking wet passengers. A face contorted in tears. A man in a red shirt; a woman in a black hijab; a baby in a young man’s arms. Volunteers, along with Ntinos, extend their hands to help people off. In minutes, trucks take the migrants to transfer stations run by the United Nations or large NGOs. Most people will only spend a couple days in Greece, hoping to secure residency in more prosperous European nations. With much of the real danger behind them, the next steps to this arduous journey will be full of slow-moving bureaucracy. They leave the boats and life jackets on the rocky shore.
As the migrants depart, Ntinos and a few others quickly spring to action. Two men jump into the boat. They deflate it, then slice open the dinghy’s rubber floor. They extract the sheets of plywood that keep the boat’s bottom flat and pass them to others on shore. Another man pulls all the ropes off. Two others head into the cold water, one steadying the stern while the other unhinges the outboard motor. Because of rules on international waters, smugglers make no effort to save their cheap, flimsy boats.
In five minutes, the crew passes all these materials up to a beat-up truck. The men climb in, and move on, keeping an eye out for more incoming boats.
Back home, Ntinos shows off some ongoing construction. He and several other Roma families live on the fringes of the small inland town Gera. Repairs were needed on some of the more run-down houses, and boat parts are recognizable throughout.
“We use the materials to make bedrooms, we use them as walls, and plastic material we put on top of the roof,” Ntinos explains. “In the summer we are planning to make a whole house from scratch from the boats.” The rest of the boat materials can be salvaged and sold. He says it’s not ideal work, but his resourcefulness pays off. It fills in for lack of job opportunities and gives new life to materials that others overlook as garbage. This massive wave of migration also strikes a chord with Ntinos. Stories recounted by his ancestors—generations of Roma, thought to have originated from India—told of constantly fleeing danger or seeking a better life. “We the Roma people started as refugees,” Ntinos says about their practice of helping the migrants to shore before starting on recycling. “We have lived this and we are very much in pain for them.”
Beyond the summer tourism boom, most jobs on the island revolve around rearing livestock or tending to olive orchards on the hardscrabble land—though even these are not always available to Ntinos and his family due to anti-Roma sentiment. It was farmers on the northeastern coast who first noticed the potential resources from migrant boats. They rebuilt leaky roofs with plastic, made animal pens, and in at least one case, repurposed two entire inflatable boats into water troughs for livestock.
“[The migrants] have saved us, even though some of these locals say they are a problem,” explains Tony. A retiree with a sneaky smile and an enormous moustache, he lives a few hundred meters off the coast. On top of the materials, he says the influx of migrants and NGOs has brought a lot of money and jobs to residents, a rarity in the winter season.
Looking down from his house at massive piles of orange vests, he laments that this creates so much usable waste. “It’s a pity… all these are money, the life jackets, the boats. It’s millions of euros.”
Between playful yells at his cat, Fofo, and a couple of dogs, Tony proudly shows off his own resourcefulness. While elastic, cords, and wood from the boats now play an integral part of his pig stable, his pièce de résistance is the new bathroom. With the exception of one wall that clearly came from the samples section of a local Bed, Bath & Beyond equivalent, this new wing to his house comes almost entirely from materials collected from the boats. Separated from his shack and farm, he has high hopes for the new construction. “You never know, maybe a chick visits in the summer!” he says, grinning.
Just down the hill from Tony, Jai Mexi stands amid the discarded life jackets. A social entrepreneur based in Athens and founder of the local NGO Odyssea, his life couldn’t be more different from the mustachioed farmer. But they share the belief that the endless heap of bright orange needs a better endpoint than the current disposal method: burning them and sending thick, black plumes of chemicals into the air.
“Our goal is to upcycle the tons of waste left behind by refugees and the people crossing through Lesbos searching for a better life,” Jai explains on a gusty, overcast day.
Working with the likes of artist Ai Wei Wei and local and regional politicians, Jai aims to use everything from the life vests—straps, foam, the orange outer fabric—to make secondary products, some of which he does from a basement studio in Athens’ Exarheia neighborhood. Inside the studio, Nikos Hatzilias shows off some of the prototypes he, Jai, and other designers conceived: bags, wallets, purses, and other objects they plan to sell. The proceeds will help migrants with basic goods and services.
“This is not garbage,” says Nikos, as he sits behind a sewing machine testing a new design to turn a life jacket into a baby carrier. “These are proper materials that you can build stuff out of, and of course these objects can have a second life. These materials last for a long time.”
Nikos and Jai have gone to the coast of Lesbos over the past few months to collect these resilient materials. As quickly as a beach clean-up occurs, new waves of migrants come. In peak months, the equivalent of the island’s population comes through, overwhelming dumpsites and leaving behind a trail of orange on the coast, visible even from planes. It’s a major waste issue. Or, it’s a lot of potential for the new products and spaces envisioned by people like Ntinos, Tony, Jai, and Nikos.
All the men say they’re aware their work will have little impact on the trips or lives of the refugees. But Jai emphasizes that taking a creative eye to the local realities of the crisis offers inherent value. “Our goal is to turn this garbage into something useful, and imagine how we can transform this very difficult and heavy story into a positive one,” he says.