Scraps of Hope
On the Greek island of Lesvos, hundreds of thousands of life vests discarded by refugees fleeing war blanket the shoreline. When art professor Pam Longobardi saw these acres of litter, she found a creative way to bring attention to refugees from many nations.
written by Jac Kuntz | posted on June 20, 2017
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated last year that more than 65 million people had been displaced from their homes and were seeking protection across the globe.
That’s more refugees than World War II created.
Fleeing Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia and other nations, huge numbers continue to land in Greece despite the small nation’s limited resources and fragile economy. Close to one million have landed on the Greek island of Lesvos alone, which receives up to 1,000 refugees a day. Many of these come from Turkey, crossing the narrow strait separating Lesvos from the Anatolian peninsula by raft. Often inexperienced and ill-equipped, the refugees can take up to five hours to pilot their rafts across the open sea. Hundreds have drowned and suffered injuries.
All along the island’s shores, hundreds of thousands of life jackets rise in mountainous piles of orange, black and blue. Discarded by refugees upon arrival, the vests have become part of the landscape, enduring evidence of these desperate escapes.
While in Greece for a conference in May 2016, Pam Longobardi, Distinguished University Professor in the Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design and artist-in-nature at the Oceanic Society, volunteered at a Lesvos refugee camp for unaccompanied minors — solo travelers, stowaways, and other youths orphaned amid conflict and flight. In addition to providing food and medical care, the camp’s volunteers also organize activities to keep the refugees active, such as English classes and coordinated outings. Longobardi took her group to clean up the beach.
When she encountered the island’s graveyard of life savers, she saw a creative way to alert the world to Lesvos’ refugee crisis. She and her group brought the safety gear back to the camp to make an impromptu art installation, which she would soon develop into a lasting project.
After amassing a stockpile of donated supplies for the refugees,
Longobardi went back to Lesvos in December 2016. Teaming up with local residents eager to help and a larger organization called Lesvos Solidarity, which maintains an open-model camp tailored to families where refugees may come and go as they please, she started an art collaboration.
“We connected over the idea of making flags for this new nation of people from many places, a new nation of refugees, a migrant nation without fixed borders, a moving and changeable community seeking refuge,” Longobardi said.
“There was an overwhelmingly positive response from aid workers, volunteers and most of the refugees we encountered. We did some exercises with the kids in the camps where they drew flags. Many drew flags of their homeland. Others drew the Greek flag while some of the older kids were focused on the flags of the nations they wanted to go to, like Canada, even though they didn’t know where they’d end up.”
For Longobardi, the discarded life vests covering the shores of Lesvos provided the perfect fabric for the flags.
To create a national flag representing the chaos of this island is an incredible notion. Here, hundreds of thousands of people from countries around the world speak dozens of languages, share resources and living quarters, and strive to reach many different destinations. From the salvaged materials, Longobardi created the largest flag of them all, the “Flag of Lesvos.”
During her visit, Longobardi discovered a group of residents and refugees who had also found a creative way to repurpose the life jackets.
Members of a workshop coalition called Mosaik, they hand-stitch tote bags based on patterns designed by Greek artist Matina Kontoleut, which they sell to raise money for the camps. Longobardi joined their cause, too, promoting and selling these Safe Passage bags in partnership with Atlanta’s Hathaway Contemporary Gallery, where her 15-foot flag will soon be exhibited.
Longobardi’s flags proceed from one of the artist’s longtime passions. In 2006, Longobardi founded the Drifters Project, an artist collaboration committed to addressing the environmental crisis of plastic pollution in global water. She has since cleaned beaches of plastic all over the world, removing thousands of pounds of pollutants from the natural environment and turning them into sculptures and installations to raise awareness about their grave environmental repercussions.
To her, these life vests are a new wave of plastic pollution that carries the added significance of helping to transport a human being to safety amid an international refugee crisis with humanitarian and environmental components.
According to Longobardi’s assistant, graduate student Susan Knippenberg (M.F.A.), “The Drifters Project typically documents the crimes of humans against nature, not the crimes of humans against [other] humans. However, I think there is definitely some overlap here.”
Refugees continue to flock to Lesvos without respite as exiles and residents alike battle the discouraging developments.
“There’s no end in sight,” Longobardi said, “but there is also an incredible feeling of goodness because there are so many people who have made it their lives to help.”
The residents of Lesvos have collectively been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Just as pollutants caught in oceanic currents wash onto coastal shores, so too do human beings driven by political, economic and environmental crises. Heavy lessons attend both situations, and Longobardi’s work seeks to ensure none are lost in the surf. Far removed from the suffering and despair, most people don’t see the grave ramifications of either pollution or humanitarian catastrophe. But on the shores of Lesvos, every life vest is a life, a story, the fragile testimony of a journey one human risked everything to make. Now, the fabric of this life-saving refuse is traveling onward, spreading a message of resilience and hope as Safe Passage tote bags and flags for these vulnerable communities seeking refuge.
For more information and to find out how you can help, visit driftersproject.net.
To purchase Safe Passage tote bags, visit the Hathaway Contemporary Gallery. Proceeds support Lesvos’ refugees and the people working to help them.
Pam Longobardi’s Solo Exhibition
July 22 – September 15, 2017
Atlanta’s Hathaway Contemporary Gallery