The global refugee crisis is ongoing, even if the world has stopped paying attention. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) — the international body tasked with overseeing issues related to refugees — estimates that over 120 refugees arrive in Greece every single day*. Most come by sea, and many arrive first in Lesbos, an island just off the coast of Turkey.
These are often not safe or carefree landings. Horrific numbers of people are left to struggle or drown in the water. If rescued, refugees are slung a life jacket and pulled onto boats or onto the shore. And once they land, they discard those jackets on the beach.
The life jacket is therefore both a symbol of protection and the perilous situation that too many have to endure.
Which is why social entrepreneur Mohamad Malim has decided that the discarded life jackets serve as the perfect base for his inspiring upcycling venture: turning the fabric into socially-conscious jewelry.
Through Epimonia, Malim sells a range of bracelets, caps, t-shirts and drawstring bags that are made from life jackets collected by charity workers on the beaches of Lesbos. The fabric is then sent to a Minnesota-based fashion factory, HBI Textile, which works with former refugee employees to cut, stitch, and finish the products.
These are each sold for under $40 each, with the idea that wearing the clothing symbolises support for the plight of refugees.
What’s more, 50% of the profits from the business are shared with charities and programmes that help refugees integrate into their new lives. Epimonia has donated thousands of dollars to the International Institute of Minnesota to support language teaching and job training; USA for UNHCR to support resettled refugees in the US; and Refugees4Refugees to help asylum seekers take the lead on relief efforts.
This mission — to “spread hope and love” for refugees, while also supporting them through a sustainable business — is borne out of a personal journey.
Malim grew up in Dadaab, in Kenya, after his family fled Somalia and were paired with “thousands of starving, desperate people in the largest refugee complex in the world.”
He says that while there he had nights of “starvation, fear and hopelessness” as his mother risked her life to find food for the family to eat.
However, shortly after his first brother was born, (Malim is the oldest of six siblings) his parents were fortunate enough to have their name drawn by a lottery system for rehousing, operated in the refugee camp by the UNHCR.
This led to being settled in Minnesota, US, a place in which he became the first one in his family to finish school, go to university, and launch his dream business.
“To be a refugee, it feels hard. It feels tough when you don’t feel like you belong there,” he tells the website Freethink. “When you grow up as a refugee, whether it’s a new country, the U.S. or outside of the U.S., it’s difficult because they have to start their whole life all over again. And that’s the hardest part of being a refugee.”
On his personal website, Malim adds that his family’s obstacles in life always taught him to believe in his dreams and never give up. “My mother’s dream was for my siblings and I to obtain a proper education, a roof over our heads and never to worry about food on our plates. It means everything in the world that my mother’s dream is now becoming a reality.”
Alongside Epimonia, Maalim is founder of Dream Refugee, an organisation that uses storytelling to tackle the day’s most relevant and troubling themes of exclusions, xenophobia and apathy. It showcases the “untold refugee experience” and creates “empathy and compassion between disparate communities.”
These include stories of College Professor and Hmong Refugee, Pa Der Vang; Game Developer and South Sudan refugee Lual Mayen; and model and Somali refugee Halima Aden.
In addition, Maalim is a regular speaker on the university circuit.
“Refugees are human beings, just like all of us,” he adds to Freethink. “They all want opportunities to provide for their families, and that’s what the bracelets stand for.”
* 34,000 refugees have arrived in Greece since January 2019 — an average of 126 people per day.
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