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Meet CUCULA, the Berlin Furniture Company Seeking to Empower Refugees

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A furniture workshop in central Berlin may seem like an unlikely place to mount a challenge to European labor laws. But amid sawdust and wood chips, a German non-profit and a group of West African refugees-turned-furniture makers have spent the last few years building tables and chairs, as well as establishing a case study for empowering and employing immigrants. Now, after selling hundreds of pieces and raising more than €120,000 (~$131,000), they're waiting for the government to help make things official. CUCULA, the refugees' company for crafts and design—named after a West African word for connection and working together—originated in late 2013. Workers at the Schlesische27 refugee center decided to help a group of five young men from Mali and Niger make furniture for their rooms. According to Corinna Sy, one of the founders, the five men they approached—Ali Maiga Nouhou, Maiga Chamseddine, Malik Agachi, Moussa Usuman and Saidou Moussa—said as much as they liked the project, they didn't really need furniture; what they needed were jobs.

Sy, along with fellow designer Sebastian Däschle, director of Kulturhaus Schlesische27 Barbara Meyer and educator Jessy Medernach, as well as a growing team of volunteers, took that response as a challenge and began to build out a furniture business. After a year and a half, the CUCULA team has sold hundreds of tables, dressers, and bed frames, and even exhibited at the Milan Furniture fair. Their DIY pieces, fashioned in the company's Kreuzberg workshop, are actually licensed versions from Italian designer Enzo Mari's classic 1974 Autoprogettazione, an early guide to readymade furniture. The licensing agreement stipulates that only refugees can make these official copies.

Despite the organization's initial success, the West African workers still haven't been able to draw a legal paycheck. After entering Europe for work via Italy and then migrating to Germany, the five refugees can't legally be paid for work in Germany. CUCULA has even held a crowdfunding campaign that successfully raised more than €120,000 to help fund the workshop and offer scholarships to the workers, but they can't technically be treated like employees.

"That's our main motivation," says Sy. "We think it's ridiculous how refugees are treated. On one hand, there're so many companies looking for German workers to do this kind of manual labor, so why can't they work and earn money? With more and more refugees coming in, it's a growing problem, and we're just trying to do something concrete and pragmatic about it."

Sy says that as the company has grown, CUCULA has entered a gray area as it tries to figure out the best way to move forward and get people paid. As the group looks to scale up, hire more refugees, and spread the model, they really want a response from the government to move forward.

"We're here offering up our project on a silver platter," she says. "We want to start a discourse or dialogue, and are inviting the politicians to begin talking."

· More Furniture posts [Curbed]