Children's book examines belonging from bird's eye view

Image credit: Keir Edmonds

Keir Edmonds lives in an area that used to be right next to the Berlin Wall and it's given him fresh insights into the intermingling of past and present. Real and virtual divisions spurred the British writer to create a children's book focused on the concept of welcoming outsiders.

"I often think that if I was still living in London, would I have done this book? It's because I live here and I'm alert to certain issues," Edmonds told rabble.ca in an interview.

Mr. Flamingo is a vibrantly illustrated book that chronicles the story of a flamingo forced to leave his homeland and trying to find friends after landing in Berlin.

"There's a four-year-old trapped inside of me," said Edmonds. "One of my favourite books as a child was about a little bird who falls out of the nest and is looking for his mum. He would ask different animals and things, 'Are you my mother?' I thought how scary that was for the little bird."

Edmonds, who has lived in Berlin for five years, works in communications for a German technology company. After going through a rough patch couple of years ago -- "I was partying too hard and hit a wall" -- he restarted an old hobby: drawing and painting. Edmonds started creating detailed illustrations of his neighbourhood, near the U-Bahn Schleisestor. This area is right across the river from the famous East Wall Gallery -- a preserved portion of the Berlin Wall with massive murals and graffiti.

"When I moved here, even as a white, Western European man, I had difficulties fitting in; there are so many ways in which Berlin and German society aren't accessible," noted Edmonds. "Then, I've started thinking about people from Africa and refugees from Syria -- having escaped such trying situations and then to arrive here, what a shock. The culture here is so icy. "

Edmonds recalls a recent interaction in his kiez -- a Berlin word for the four-block radius around where you live -- in which a couple of guys, who were immigrants from Africa, tried to sell him weed. He declined and went into a restaurant to pick up his take-out dinner.

"They also came inside and one of the guys told me, 'I might go back, it's been three years and I can't get a job, I can't get my papers. What else am I supposed to do?'" said Edmonds. "He told me, 'This isn't what I wanted to do.'"

In his kiez, there are many in the same position. The ways of othering are manifold in Germany. Edmonds was witness to the 2015 mass arrival of almost one million refugees. An estimated 600,000 were from Syria. In the following years, the so-called "Welcome Refugees" movement has gotten a backlash. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose party has gotten slapped down in recent regional elections, has been under fire from right-wing parties for what they deem far too liberal migration policies. New border controls have been put in place and this has had the effect of shrinking the number of asylum seekers.

The dominant narrative in the media is about anti-migration issues and the nationalist extremist party, the AfD, has preyed upon fears and prejudices, thereby garnering more votes. A recent government tactic is to encourage people to return to their homelands -- large ads in various languages (and in Arabic script) have popped up telling refugees that if they voluntarily return, the German government will support them with up to 3,000 euros for housing assistance. The government also has a plan to finance jobs and support vocational training in various countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria and Tunisia.

"A year ago, I noticed how this welcome thing has been turned around," said Edmonds. "I thought, with a book, it would be nice for kids to learn about accepting different kinds of people who are struggling to fit in and be accepted."

The topic of integration -- or rather inclusivity -- looms large in our conversation. I tell Edmonds about Canada's form of refugee migration, the private sponsorship program. Groups of five or more citizens band together to adopt a refugee family but must raise about $18,000 for a family of four, or about $22,650 for a family of six, with the federal government matching those funds for one year. More than 60 per cent of refugees to Canada from 2016 to 2017 came under this program, according to Refugee Hub. It provides for fast-track inclusion since it's Canadians who are responsible for helping the family out on a daily basis (i.e. bringing them to doctors, enrolling the children in school, helping with grocery shopping, looking for work).

"Such a great idea!" enthused Edmonds. "I get the feeling Canada is far more progressive than Europe and the U.K. in that sense. And here in Germany, I see how separate the [cultural] groups are."

Recent statistics indicate the private sponsorship program is a success. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) conducted a Rapid Impact Evaluation reviewing the outcomes of Syrian refugees admitted between November 4, 2015 and March 1, 2016. More than half of adults in the private sponsorship program (52.8 per cent) reported they were currently employed in Canada, compared with just 9.7 per cent of the adults who were supported by government agencies and not a group of citizens.

Where does Mr. Flamingo come from?

In fact, the choice of animal in Edmonds' book is connected to Syrians.

"I did some research and discovered that flamingos come from Africa and the Middle East -- they exist in Syria," he explained. "And, it's such a fun, quirky animal -- it sticks out. It's pink and that's the opposite of grey Berlin."

For those wondering, the greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) is found in Africa, the Indian subcontinent, southern Europe and the Middle East.

In the book, Mr. Flamingo goes to some famous and infamous sites and asks people, "Will you be my friend?" You see him at the Eastside Gallery meeting tourists, having a moment with Angela Merkel, riding the U-Bahn and then being yelled at by a construction worker.

"I've had that," revealed Edmonds. "These official Germans yelling at you. Parts of the book reflect what I've experienced, too."

And, there's a wink to the adults in Berlin -- Mr. Flamingo lines up to get inside Berghain, a legendary nightclub.

"It would be great if parents could read this to their child and maybe have an interaction about the sites of Berlin but at the same time, the child can relate to the story's fundamental aspects: not fitting in and trying to make friends."

Edmonds tested the story among his colleagues who had children. The age range that seems to align with the book hovers between three to six years old.

He's now offering the book on Etsy and hopes to get it into some local bookstores as well. Edmonds is also thinking of future editions.

"Well, I think I might be able to do Mr. Flamingo in different cities -- which would be fun for kids in other countries. I have friends in Montreal, maybe that's next?"

Find the book online here.

June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.

Image credit: Keir Edmonds

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