By turning boats into bags, Mimycri help to redefine the narrative surrounding new arrivals.

Upcycling nonprofit, Mimycri, turn abandoned lifeboats used to carry migrants across the Mediterranean, into stylish bags and accessories. I attended their recent fashion show to find out more...


The first bag on the runway was a rucksack made of pink, black, white and green canvas pieces, stitched together in a stylish geometric design. More and more models strode proudly down the catwalk sporting a mixture of satchels, holdalls, bumbags and rucksacks, each one totally unique.


Most bags and accessories are made in factories, printed, stitched, or glued together by bots or factory workers on minimum wage. But these bags are designed and made here, in Berlin, and the canvas used to make them has an incredible story to tell...


Instead of holding lipsticks, or iPhones, or wallets, these bags used to hold people. Sometimes hundreds at a time. These bags were lifeboats that crossed the Mediterranean, carrying thousands of migrant men, women and children to safety on islands off the coast of Greece.


It was on one such island, Chios, that Nora Azzaoui and Vera Günther, the co-founders of Mimycri, first had the idea for their company. They were volunteers, welcoming migrants off the boats, distributing supplies and offering their help. They became aware of all the discarded life rafts left to clog up the beaches. Instead of simply throwing them away, they had another idea: Why not make them into something else?


“They were really crazy times and a lot of boats were arriving. Between arrivals we were cleaning the beaches and throwing away all this material. Then we realised doing something that has an impact isn’t difficult if you just do it.”

- Vera, Mimycri Co-founder, in an interview with UNHCR


Mimycri is now a thriving social enterprise, employing 7 people with a migrant background, including 31-year old Abid Abi from Pakistan, who in a recent interview, remembers the traumatic journey across the Aegean sea from Turkey to Greece. When Abid heard about Mimycri, he offered his help, having previously worked in the textiles industry in Pakistan from the age of 11. The main bag designer is also a refugee, named Hassan, originally from Syria.


Hassan was present at the fashion show, where he and a co-worker introduced the show by saying a few words in German. It was heartwarming to see how much pride and thought had gone into the whole event, and to see newcomers actively involved in the process, every step of the way.


Image via UNHCR


As I watched the canvas creations emerge on the runway, many thoughts ran through my head: How many lives have those life rafts helped to save? And, how many had they lost? How would I feel, as a refugee who had perhaps travelled to Europe in a similar vessel, to see these boats made into fashion items? Never before had a fashion show felt so significant, so thought-provoking.


“It’s a lot of responsibility to work with such historic material. Every time we unpack a new boat and open it up it’s something very emotional. It already carries a story. I think the act of transforming it into something new is touching, and it’s empowering as well. We want people to change their perspective about what it was before and what it can be now. We want them to think about its history and develop an entirely new story.”

- Vera, Mimycri Co-founder, in an interview with UNHCR


The fact that these bags have literally saved thousands of people’s lives and are now turned into stylish bags and accessories could be seen as a symbol of empowerment, of hope and new horizons. On the other hand, it could be seen as slightly exploitative- taking a traumatic event and turning it into some kind of clever marketing metaphor. Many people might see Mimycri as trivialising the flight experience of refugees, for whom a lifeboat could symbolize fear, pain, and loss of life. For a person who has perhaps lost a family member during the sea voyage, that loss can never be changed or 'upcycled' into something else.


Whatever your perception, the poetry of Mimycri’s upcycling story is hard to miss- everything seems to come full circle. The refugees who were saved by these boats are now, in turn, saving the boats themselves, and giving them a new lease of life, a new purpose.

Image via Mimycri

By turning boats into bags, Mimycri succeed in not just redefining these objects, but in helping to redefine the narrative surrounding new arrivals. The newcomers who find themselves in Europe have skills, have dreams, have a future, exemplified by people like Hassan and Abid. Once these boats have crossed the Med, their journey still isn't over- they are not defunct, they still hold value. In the same way that the boats can be turned into something different, so too can all people who arrive in Europe create new lives, new careers, new identities for themselves.


This message is reflected in the name "Mimycri", which comes from Biology. The terms, explains Vera Günther, is used to describe the process by which an animal, for example, an insect pretends "as if it were a plant". This represents the ideology of Mimycri- of ‘changing perspectives’:"Dinghies can be future bags: refugees, friends or colleagues."


This positive narrative should be promoted more, and Mimycri is an excellent example of a grassroots social initiative that employs refugees, and spreads a message of hope, solidarity, and empowerment.


Aside from the positive symbolism of Mimicrys vision, they are doing a lot of practical good- by creating opportunities for refugees to showcase their skills, and crediting their designs; by recycling materials; and finally, by raising awareness for the reality of thousands of refugees who have made the perilous journey to Europe.


“We do not see only plastic waste, we also see a beautiful future bag; We do not only see tragedy, we see also opportunities; We do not only see a societal challenge, we see individuals with skills and talents.”

- Mimycri, quote from official website

The journey is not over- not for the boats, or for the people. And luckily there are organisations like Mimycri, who can help bring a unique perspective to the discourse.


Image via UNHCR


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