ROME — It goes without saying that what K_Alma is trying to accomplish is not simple. But it also — and above all — carries a unique human, environmental, social and political vision.

For the past three years, in its headquarters in central Rome, K_Alma has brought together volunteer carpenters to teach their profession to asylum seekers, refugees and unemployed Italians, offering them free formal and informal education opportunities, self-training, self-expression and knowledge. What the group practices, in other words, is social carpentry.

Over the last seven years, close to 700,000 asylum seekers landed on Italy's shores, seeking to enter the EU after, in many cases, fleeing war and persecution. K_Alma was devised as a way to help them integrate into Italian society and increase their chances of landing a job and starting over in their new country. It's a social workshop with ecological sensitivity and eternal love for wood.

"It started like this: the passion for wood and years and years of battles for the rights of migrants," says Gabriella Guido, president of the association. "What we do is start from training, strengthening individual skills with informal and free courses. Especially at this historical moment."

The waiting list is endless.

Since its founding in 2017, the social carpentry organization has trained about 80 carpenters. Among its members and supporters are people who have always been active in the integration and human rights sector, but also private citizens and charitable institutions (such as the Waldensian Church and the Haiku Foundation) who have guaranteed the project's sustainability over the years.

Besides social work, the project's other cornerstone, since its foundation, has been environmental sustainability. The group focuses on projects that teach recycling and the circular economy. It uses waste materials, for example — wood of different origins and kind in its products. Last year, the workshop started producing cutting boards by reusing the trunks of trees that fell in Rome due to storms or neglect and that would otherwise be destined for pulping.

Meanwhile, the shop also hosts workshops and awareness-raising activities aimed at customers on the subject of the economy of reuse and recycling. And the very layout of its space was designed to minimize its environmental impact.

carpentry, refugees, Italy, Rome

Carpenters teach their profession to asylum seekers, refugees and unemployed Italians. — Photo: Matteo Nardone/Pacific Press/ZUMA

A few months ago, moreover, K-Alma was certified as an "ethical" carpenter by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an NGO that has developed a forest certification system for the production, transformation and processing of wood. That means that K_Alma products use wood coming from a fair-trade supply chain — and don't only bolster the human rights and condition of refugees, but also ecological rights.

"We are proud of this certificate because it allows us to focus not only on the choice and quality of the timber but also on respect for nature and for all the people who work in this area," says Guido.

Even at such a difficult time as the pandemic, apprentices can count on four professional carpenters who volunteer at the workshop. "We reopened on June 20 in an even larger space than we were before, in Rome's central Testaccio neighborhood," she says. That's because, as Italy lost more than a million jobs during the pandemic, the demand for K_Alma's courses sky-rocketed and almost doubled.

The courses are "full of participants and the waiting list is endless," Guido says. "Those who come to us normally do not have a deadline to stop taking classes — but in this case, unfortunately, we had to close enrollment temporarily."

The courses are intended for up to 20 participants, and to cope with the various problems that may arise, the organization decided to focus on the small-scale manufacture of a range of products. "This requires giving considering even more carefully how we source our wood — both in terms of where it comes from and what kind it is," the association president explains.

What's more, K_Alma has even managed to export its eco-friendly philosophy. It has branched out with a project, for example, to make Rome parks more sustainable and inclusive, and developed a workshop with the local Academy of Fine Arts and the Faculty of Architecture to teach residents how to recover and recycle urban wood.

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