German Program Helps Migrants Overcome Traumatic Experience at Sea

April 21,2015

Migrants fleeing poverty and violence in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia risk life and limb to reach safety in Europe.

After a long and exhausting journey to reach the smugglers on the Mediterranean Sea coast, there is a dangerous voyage across the sea in small and overcrowded vessels. More than 1,000 people have died so far this year during the arduous trek, either from exhaustion or by drowning after their boat sank.

Those who have made it to European shores are traumatized by the experience, but a program in Germany helps survivors overcome the trauma by giving a new perspective to their catastrophic experience.

The Cucula initiative in Berlin gives refugees and asylum seekers the opportunity to build furniture from planks of wood dismantled from the boats on which they escaped.

The program has given new hope and confidence to a group of young immigrants who fled their homes in Africa and arrived in Germany after crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa. One of them is a 23-year-old man from Mali.

"I cannot forget the boats because I lost four friends in the waters. They could not swim, neither can I. I could not help them," Ali Maiga Nouhou said.

But making a useful object from the remnants of the boat from which he was rescued and taken first to Italy and then to Germany eases the pain of that memory, he said

"I think it helped me a lot. I can make a chair from those small pieces of wood. That is our story," Nouhou said.

'My story'

An immigrant from Nigeria, still speaking Italian, expresses a similar sentiment. "I feel good because this is also my story and I will never forget it. I too will die, but I will have left my story behind," said Moussa Usuman, 32.

Malik Agachi, 21, also an immigrant from Niger, said, "This is my story of Lampedusa. It comes from my heart and I can't forget it. I would like other people to be able to tell their story."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been one of the European Union leaders who has spoken of the critical need to stop the smugglers from turning the Mediterranean Sea into what some people call a "graveyard" of the world's desperate.

"Firstly, we must and will do everything to take up and continue the fight against traffickers who expose people to danger and death in an inhumane manner," Merkel said.

"Secondly, we will need to focus on overcoming the causes of people fleeing. And thirdly, and this is the most important issue these days and I think all of us are moved by this, we will do everything to avoid victims continuing to die in the Mediterranean Sea, on our doorstep, in the most agonizing manner," she added.

But humanitarian groups say more needs to be done for migrants who survive the journey.

Barbara Meyer, a member of the Berlin Refugee Council, said, "The situation cannot be solved solely through politics. We need to adapt a social response, too, through new ideas and a willingness to live together."

The Cucula initiative has raised about $130,000 for this furniture project.

To support the cause, organizers are selling 100 of the chairs, called "Bambino," which can be ordered in small or large sizes, costing between $140 and $270. The goal is to help immigrants develop skills aimed at rebuilding the self-confidence that many have lost while seeking asylum.