Social Service Providers

Turning Pallets into Furniture

 

9 May 2016 | BMW Foundation | Social Innovations

The Lernwerkstatt (“learning workshop”) located on the grounds of Munich’s biggest refugee center provides asylum seekers with insights into the skilled trades – to the long-term benefit of both sides. The BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt has supported the project in its very own way.

The path into a new future seems rather short: Go through the entrance to the Bayernkaserne, past the so-called “Lighthouse,” the volunteer-run welcome center, turn left past the stern-faced watchman, and you’re in front of Hall 36, a former vehicle depot of the German Armed Forces. For years, the work that’s being done here no longer involves olive-green trucks but people’s lives and their hopes for a better future and, most of all, for a good job. It is here that the association Lernwerkstatt offers asylum seekers a taste of the skilled trades, through workshops ranging from two days to two weeks.

Work takes their minds off their worries”

Upon ringing at the door, you are first ushered into the office of the Lernwerkstatt, which rather resembles an eat-in-kitchen in an apartment shared by students: a small kitchenette where used cups pile up in the sink, a lounge area, two desks, and a striking number of things made in the in-house workshop: a mug rack made from soldered heating pipes, a shelf made from wooden pallets. Many young men, from Syria and Afghanistan, Togo or Mali, find their way to Martina Gerum and her Syrian volunteer Badeea – so far it has unfortunately been only men, although women are invited, too. In the year since the courses started word has gotten around about what the association has to offer: an hour of trade-specific language training, followed by hands-on training, every day. Finally, the refugees can do something other than wait – and, at the end of the course, they can see what they have made with their own hands. Plus, they are given a certificate. Ideally, the workshop participants are then to be placed into internships or other projects. “The men desperately want to do something, they want to be part of society. And work takes their minds off their worries and memories at least for a few hours,” explains Martina Gerum, who has been in charge of the office of the Lernwerkstatt since the beginning of this year. Demand is so high that she is keeping a waiting list. The association has already received several awards and raised some €60,000 in donations. Martin Nell, from the Government of Upper Bavaria, says: “We are very happy about this valuable project.”

Refugees build furniture for the BMW Foundation

Carmen Leszynsky, too, walked into the Lernwerkstatt at the end of last year. In her spare time, she had been helping out in the clothes collection point of the refugee center, but now she was hoping for a link to her work at the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt, where she has been organizing events for the past five years. “Ideally, we are always looking for contractors who are socially engaged,” explains the 37-year-old project manager. But she had not yet found somebody to provide the furniture for the party at the 5th World Responsible Leaders Forum scheduled to take place in Munich in late May 2016.

At the Lernwerkstatt, she was at the right place at the right time – for the organizers were just about to launch woodworking courses and were looking for the right project to go with it. Soon the plan was clear: “The refugees build furniture that they need for the center. And then we borrow it for the evening of the party,” Carmen Leszynsky explains the win-win situation.

Furniture made from pallets” was the perfect cue for workshop director Roberto Reinmann. The thirty-year-old all-round workman from Ingolstadt had already built trendy lounge furniture and industrial-style tables for festivals. But this was a really big assignment: ten big L-shaped sofas, ten smaller ones, ten two-seaters, ten bar tables, plus a few smaller coffee and end tables. Would he be able to do this with a bunch of young men who had never held a cordless drill, a folding rule or a saw until a few days before?

The good thing about pallets is that they are rather forgiving, it’s not filigree work, but you can still practice all major work steps,” explains the young man with the dirty blond man bun. So Carmen Leszynsky supplied 250-euro pallets – “from a BMW supplier at half price,” she emphasizes, amazed at the willingness of many companies to help and donate. Roberto Reinmann and his “boys” could get going.

For three weeks, they sawed, screwed, polished, and painted. The result - a dozen pieces of lounge furniture - is now stored in a separate section of the huge hall. “The boys are mighty proud when they see what they have created,” explains Reinmann. “Simply knowing that they worked for the BMW brand gave them some extra motivation.” 

The Bayernkaserne turns into a workshop

The Bayernkaserne, a huge area the size of some 67 soccer fields, is currently home to some 1,350 refugees – most of them housed for the short term, some staying for a longer period of time. The idea for the Lernwerkstatt actually came from the workmen who are responsible for maintaining the center. As soon as they unpacked their tools and materials, they were surrounded by groups of young men, and this at a time when the German skilled trades sector is desperately looking for apprentices. “They realized that something was missing, and instead of wasting words they just got down to it and did it,” says Martina Gerum. So, in mid-2015, some master workmen teamed up with guilds and other supporters to launch the Lernwerkstatt.

Plumbing and heating businesses, electrical engineering firms, construction companies, painters and woodworkers – every trade has its own apprenticeship program. The workbenches, soldering stations, cordless drills, and saws were donated by companies. Mohamed from Syria and Jude from Nigeria are disassembling pallets and removing nails. From the materials, they will build 60 cutlery and napkin boxes to put on the party tables. Mohamed, who studied social work in Syria, is sweeping up scrap wood and nails. When I ask him about the Lernwerkstatt, the 25-year-old breaks into a wide smile. “It’s great. I‘ve tried different things, but building furniture is what I have enjoyed most. I like those Z sofas best, where you sit across from each other.”

In fact, they are so well received that it has given Carmen Leszynsky something to worry about – or rather, to work on. When she showed photos of the tables and sofas to the furniture rental company that will provide the remaining furniture for the forum, the company liked them so much that they wanted to order them right away. But that’s not easy in the case of a nonprofit employing refugees who are not allowed to work for pay. “I was almost shocked by what we had set in motion,” says Leszynsky. “In any case, I will definitely continue to support and advise the project.”

Text: Iris Röll