These five refugees are building furniture from boats used to cross the Med

With over a million asylum claims in Europe last year, the challenge of building a new life in a new place is perhaps more pertinent than ever. Here Francesca Ferrario looks at an innovative training scheme run by the Berlin-based start-up Cucula which aims to give refugees a new start
Cucula Trainees: Ali Maiga Nouhou, Djáè Dabo, Malik Agachi, Moussa Usuman, and Saidou Moussa
The Cucula trainees showcase some of the furniture they've made at the workshop in Berlin

This story goes as follows: a bunch of people from Mali, Nigeria and Germany started building furniture following Enzo Mari’s model of self-designing, using wood from broken boats. Then, with donations from a survivor of World War Two, they challenged the European restrictions on immigration by starting a company staffed by refugees, and bolstered by a highly successful crowdfunding campaign.

Odd as it may sound, this is the story of Cucula, a Berlin-based organisation which provides refugees with the opportunity to become professional furniture makers. The idea developed slowly and organically, building on the experience of all those involved.

Cucula’s first five trainees are Ali Maiga Nouhou, Maiga Chamseddine, Malik Agachi, Moussa Usuman and Saidou Moussa, who, after first landing in Italy, made their way to Berlin. There, they met the young designer Sebastian Daeschle and, upon Malik’s proposal, started building pieces of furniture for their rooms. A few months later, however, it became clear that the five refugees needed a means to sustain themselves beyond simply furnishing their living quarters. That’s when the idea of Cucula (“caring for each other” in Hausa) started taking shape.

Shortly after, they decided to create a limited edition selection of furniture using wood from some of the notorious boats that carry thousands of refugees across the Mediterranean Sea every month. The boat wood was obtained with the collaboration of the Lampedusa-based association, Askavusa.

Table and chairs made at the Cucula workshop in Berlin
Table and chairs made at the Cucula workshop in Berlin

Beside the five trainees, the core team includes Corinna Sy, Sebastian Daeshle, Barabara Meyer, Jessy Medernach, Sophie Cuvelier and Jutta Spychalsk. The latter has been Cucula’s major investor for about a year. Having grown up during the Second World War, she felt empathetic with the refugees’ sufferings and considered it unacceptable that they were virtually deprived of the right to work by European bureaucracy.

“Cucula offers a one year training program, as well as the opportunity to learn German and useful knowledge to settle in this country. Although it is necessary for the trainees to like to work with wood, the aim is to develop customized career perspectives for each of them, be it a mechanic, an economist, a designer or a carpenter,” explains Corinna.

“Our intention is to find and create opportunities”, she adds. “Cucula is like a ‘tunnel’, a transitional period before refugees can start an independent career. We work toward making refugees ready either for a job or for a professional apprenticeship by the end of their training.”

Shortly after, they decided to create a limited edition selection of furniture using wood from some of the notorious boats that carry thousands of refugees across the Mediterranean Sea every month.
Two members of the Cucula team working on a piece of furniture
Two members of the Cucula team working on a piece of furniture

In order to achieve this, Cucula has had to improvise, experiment, and have a lot of courage. Corinna recalls the time when they participated to Salone del Mobile in Milan, one of the world’s leading events for interior design: “We hadn’t many projects going on by then because we lacked resources and we were very transparent about this. Yet, in that crowd we looked like a professional company too! Salone del Mobile for us was very important to present ourselves, test our ideas, and confront others with them.”

This approach helped the team promote their concept and build a name. They’ve been featured in the press in more than five European countries; their ambassadors include the artist Olafur Eliasson and the actor Charly Hubner; and in November 2014 they raised more than €120,000 through a crowdfunding campaign.

The main reason for this campaign was to raise €60,000 to pay for the trainees’ scholarships, because, as Corinna explains: “non-European immigrants have far better chances to obtain a visa if they prove that they’re going to be able to sustain themselves without taking advantage of German social services. The scholarships are fundamental to allow them to remain in Germany.”

The company has many projects on its agenda, but the major focus for the coming year will be to get visas for the five refugees. With the help of a pool of lawyers, sociologists, and other experts, Cucula is trying to prove legally that they’re a company which can only work by enrolling refugees. They hope that given this expedient and by raising money for the scholarships, they’ll manage to obtain the desired documentation.

Ali Maiga Nouhou works on a child's chair at Cucula in Berlin
Ali Maiga Nouhou works on a child's chair in the Cucula workshop

Corinna explains that the main obstacles are neither public opinion, nor politicians  (who are, generally speaking, very supportive): “The problem is rather bureaucracy, which is impossible to avoid. It’s important to gain as as many supporters as possible because we want to build an alternative way to the existing bureaucratic one. We want our proposal to be constructive and open to break the stigmatizations of refugees.”

Corinna also adds: “If we find a solution for the visa issue, we’ll be able to expand our team. We’re already in the process of adding two new trainees, but we could be even more inclusive.”

Problems remain. The Dublin conference (which states that refugees must stay in the first European country they reach) is one of the major obstacles to their operations. However, there are more basic issues to cope with, first of which is the refugees’ own confusion about the new environment they’ve moved into.

“They have great fears and hopes and often cannot understand the situations they’re in. From living in West Africa with their families to such a complex system as the German one is a big change,” says Corinna.

Finally, to add a little spice to their headaches, the Cucula workshop caught on fire at the beginning of September due to a problem with an electric wire and the team had to look for alternative spaces.

Yet, the group remains positive and optimistic. Every step they make sets a precedent in a breed of company which has never existed before in Europe. It’s inevitably challenging but, they say, not more than it is rewarding. They welcome change, and they welcome new working realities.

This article was first published on MigrantEntrepreneurs Europe.

Images: © Veren/Brüning/Fotosally/Dawin Meckel/Ostkreuz and Fred Moseley

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