Many passers-by stop to take a look through the street-level windows of Odyssea, in the heart of the central Athens district of Exarchia, which look onto a huge pile of life jackets lying in the middle of the ground-floor space – the view of piles of life jackets has become a familiar one for Greeks, even those not living on the islands.
Two years have already passed since the first wave of refugees from Syria starting landing on Greece’s shores and, despite the recent drop in numbers, the problem of debris on the beaches of the islands that receive the most people remains: from piles of discarded life jackets and inflatable rafts abandoned at landing points, to tons and tons of common garbage generated by over a million arrivals as well as the people dispatched to the island to help manage them. Unfortunately, despite several declarations that the issue would be addressed, and particularly that of the life jackets littering the beaches of islands such as Lesvos, Chios, Samos and Kos, little has been done in an official capacity.
Odyssea is a not-for-profit nongovernmental organization and one of the initiatives formed to deal with the issue of refuse from refugee inflows. It was started by two young people, Jai Mexis and Irene Psifidi, who gave up jobs abroad to come to Greece and do their bit.
“Our initial idea, a year ago, was to work with the authorities in order to do something that would be to the benefit of local communities,” says Psifidi. “We met with Alternate Environment Minister Yiannis Tsironis and the mayor of Lesvos, and proposed several ideas, such as the creation of a small unit that could produce new things from the disused materials. It proved very difficult in practical terms. The structure of the state and the municipality also meant that they could not respond to the problem fast enough.”
One of the main issues was how to calculate the cost of the used life vests. The municipality refused to give them away for free, arguing that there have been cases of profiteering from such actions.
“When someone approaches us and asks for life jackets, I always ask what they want them for. Just a quick browse on the Internet will reveal all sorts of organizations, mainly abroad, claiming to have got life jackets from here and selling them at, for example, 50 euros and saying that the money will go in aid of the refugees. This is something we cannot control,” says Lesvos Deputy Mayor for Sanitation Giorgos Katsanos. “Now we insist on knowing where they are going and what they will be used for. If they are going to a foreign country, we demand some kind of official certification from that government. When we are certain that things will be done correctly, as was the case with one particular event in Europe, we will agree to hand over as many life vests as needed.”
Odyssea moved on to Chios. “We signed a contract with the municipality and paid a token amount for 55,000 life jackets,” says Psifidi. “We will create a unit in Chios to sort the material, clean it and package it for shipment to Athens, where we will manufacture a series of products such as bags, wallets and notebooks. Some things are already being made in workshops by refugees staying in Athens right now. The proceeds from sales will go toward funding a mobile medical unit to travel around the villages of Lesvos and Chios, so that any profits go back to the local communities.”