Upcycling workshop in Israel leads fight against human trafficking

AIR bags
© Amit Shemesh -- The tote bags are made from upcycled kite sails.

This social enterprise is on a mission to provide skills training to former sex workers, while transforming waste products into art.

2016 has been a distressing year, to say the least, full of depressing news stories, unexpected political shifts, and countless deaths. In an effort to combat the general feeling of malaise that defines this year, I’d like to share a happy, feel-good story that I discovered on a recent trip to Israel, as a guest of Vibe Israel.

While there, I visited a social enterprise called A.I.R., whose name stands for "Act, Inspire, Restore." A.I.R.'s mission is to provide a safe space in which former sex workers can develop new skills that are transferable to better, future careers, while upcycling waste products in the process.

A.I.R. makes furniture from old wooden pallets, transforming them into benches, chairs, tables, dresses, desks, and more. The furniture pieces are funky, chunky, and casual. The outdoor seating sets feature colorful cushions that are covered in recycled billboard canvas.

AIR dresser© A.I.R./Faceook - A dresser made from reclaimed pallets

In the back room, I saw rolls of old kite sails, donated by local kite-surfers who can no longer use them, whether because of damage or general wear-and-tear. The sails are cut and stitched into tote bags, wallets, and baby bibs, almost garish in color and abstract shapes, but so appealing that I immediately wanted to buy a bag to take home. (I did, although it took a while to figure out a price, since the bags were part of an experimental new line, just launched the day before.)

AIR workshop© Amit Shemesh -- A view of the A.I.R. workshop in Tel Aviv

There is a lot more to A.I.R. than meets the eye, however, and this is precisely what makes it so special.

Skills training is a former sex worker's ticket to a better future, but a difficult one to obtain. Not having other applicable job skills is a common problem for female sex workers, many of whom stay in the trade to support children and pay off debts, despite the majority saying it has resulted in greater financial ruin.

Founder Tabea Oppliger explained that there are many groups working to combat human trafficking through legal and political avenues, such as creating safehouses and writing legislation; but, in her eyes, it’s social reintegration that’s really needed by most of these workers. A massage therapist by training, she spent three years massaging sex workers in Zurich in order to connect with and better understand their situation.

After a trip to Tel Aviv in 2014, when a prostitute walking past recognized Tabea from Zurich and came over to sit with her, much to the chagrin of her accompanying pimp, Tabea and her husband Matthias decided to relocate to Tel Aviv permanently, in order to start A.I.R. Now they work with their team of social workers and production managers, as well as 8 former sex workers, who will stay with them for a maximum of one year for skills training. Tabea has not encountered that first woman since coming back, although she hopes to someday.

AIR founder© Amit Shemesh -- A.I.R.'s founder Tabea Oppliger speaks to TreeHugger in December.

A.I.R. is an offshoot of a Switzerland-based non-governmental organization GlowbalAct, founded by the Oppligers in 2011, which fights human trafficking worldwide. GlowbalAct, whose name plays on the idea that people learn how to glow again once they rejoin society, estimates that there are 12,000 women, men, and children working in the sex trade in Israel.

This number is shocking, as affluent, well-educated Israel is not the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of human trafficking in general, but it goes to show that the problem of human trafficking is indeed a global one, no matter where you are. (Watch new film "She Has A Name" to learn more about human trafficking. Twenty percent of proceeds go to GlowbalAct.)

The Oppligers have dedicated their lives to helping these workers get off the streets and onto their feet. At the same time, their upcycling business philosophy of “Make art, not waste” has been very successful throughout Israel, with a contract to furnish an entire coffee shop and the rooftop patios of popular hostels in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Their products are good, their philosophy is admirable, and the results are literally saving lives. It’s heartwarming to see.

Visit A.I.R.'s website here. Currently the furniture is only available within Israel, but the company is working to develop an international shipping policy. The products made from kite sails are not yet on the website, but contact for further inquiries.

TreeHugger is a guest of Vibe Israel, a non-profit organization leading a tour called Vibe Eco Impact in December 2016 that explores various sustainability initiatives throughout Israel.

Tags: Israel | Recycled Building Materials | Recycled Consumer Goods | Recycling | Tel Aviv | Tourism | Upcycling

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