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Activists Turn Discarded Life Vests Into Mattresses for Refugees

The jackets are piling up on the island of Lesvos.

Image via Anežka Marie Sokol's Facebook account

Life vests are piling up on the Greek island of Lesvos, neon-bright reminders of those who braved treacherous waters to swim to those shores, leaving the jackets behind in their haste to reach a safe haven. Recognizing that they had a valuable resource on their hands, some refugees tore apart the fabric of the vests and stitched them into handbags and other accessories.

One group of Lesvos volunteers, however, realized they could turn them into another useful product: mattresses for refugees who need a place to rest their head at night. For the volunteers, these discarded life vests constituted an environmental problem, as well as wasted material that might be put to constructive use. The foam inside the vests, which makes them comfortable to lie on, also insulates heat.

“We were sitting on them because the ground was cold and we thought, ‘Let’s make a mattress.’ We had the cable ties already, and in five minutes we had a product,” Anežka Sokol, a volunteer from Denmark, told the UNHCR. “It’s a closed-cell material, that’s why you can use it in a life vest. It insulates pretty well because it’s full of air.”

The volunteers prototyped a mattress, and produced 20 that they then handed out to people at the refugee registration center. According to the UNHCR, approximately 3,300 refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers arrive at the island of Lesvos on a daily basis. Many of them sleep in tents on the cold, hard ground.

“People have nothing to lie on,” Sokol said. “It was -6 degrees centigrade the day after New Year’s [Day], and you just don’t want to be on the ground.”

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