Flatpack revelations: Nansen’s mission to meet migration’s many faces

Nansen is a new Berlin-based publication exploring the lives and stories of migrants. Through each edition, the publication introduces readers to an individual who has made a new country home, while simultaneously exploring their wider community and city. Editor Vanessa Ellingham spoke to Aerostorie about her Ikea revelation that kickstarted the project.


 Vanessa Ellingham, the editor of  Nansen . Photo: Andreas Nielsen.

Vanessa Ellingham, the editor of Nansen. Photo: Andreas Nielsen.

Great ideas often strike in unusual places. For Vanessa Ellingham, the Ikea maze is in part responsible for her globally-minded magazine Nansen. The New Zealander, who lives in Berlin, had just completed a shopping expedition with her partner when she began pondering the ideas that would spawn her newest venture.

“We’d just been shopping for furniture for our new flat, in our new city, for the second time in a year, having done the same thing a year earlier in Copenhagen. It made me think about all the people, everywhere, shopping for some basic things for their new homes in Ikea stores all over the world, and all the other experiences we must have in common,” she says.

It’s the commonalities — and the exquisite differences — that Ellingham explores within her publication. Her interest in the topic stemming in part from her own experiences moving overseas.

Growing up in Wellington and studying in Auckland, Ellingham moved with her boyfriend to Denmark shortly after graduating. It was then that she discovered firsthand the challenges of moving to a new country.

When you boil it down, we’re all leaving behind loved ones, our support networks, and stepping into the unknown.

“I hadn’t realised how much multiculturalism, and the acceptance that there’s more than one way of doing things, had informed my worldview until I found myself somewhere where there was only one way of doing things — and that was the Danish way. I found myself bumping up against a lot of brick walls.”

After a year in Copenhagen, the couple relocated to Berlin, a city which they felt suited them better. But while the change helped, the experience left Ellingham with a lot of questions about global movement, immigration and diversity.

“I think the comparison between the relative openness towards migration in my home country, and the cultural diversity in Berlin, and then with Denmark and my experiences there, that’s all informed my interest in migration. Who’s doing a good job of welcoming newcomers? Where is a good, comfortable place to move to? What are different kinds of migrants looking for? How can we make this easier?”

While these ideas bubbled away, a title for the publication came easily. Its intriguing moniker was inspired by the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who is best known for his polar exploration. After the First World War Fridtjof Nansen became the High Commissioner for Refugees at the League of Nations. He later won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work resettling Russian refugees.

 The cover of  Nansen 's first issue.

The cover of Nansen's first issue.

“He also devised a document which became known as the Nansen Passport. This enabled stateless persons to legally cross borders. We’re inspired by his adventurous spirit and his big thinking on migration,” Ellingham explains.

In the first issue, Nansen meets Aydin Akin, a Turkish-German man who is known locally in Berlin for his daily endurance cycling protest.

“He’s instantly recognisable to most Berliners, but not many of us know what he’s actually protesting about. It turns out he has dedicated his life to furthering migrant rights in Berlin and Germany and he has really useful insights about migration and integration that we think the world needs to hear. So in issue one we get to know him and his community.

“I’ve only been here in Berlin for four years, Aydin’s been here for 49 years. We’re two Berliners who wouldn’t usually meet and have a chat, but being able to share the things we found funny or strange or difficult about coming here, and what could make that better, that was really meaningful to me and I hope it will be to the people who read his story.

“That’s what we want to do with all our future subjects; get right into their personal experiences and allow our readers to connect with them,” Ellingham says.

While the term ‘migrant’ is often loaded, and used to stoke political fires, Ellingham’s publication highlights how broad the term is, and how widely it can apply to those who move overseas. The connotations of the word are something the editor and publisher has given careful thought to.

 An inside spread from  Nansen 's first issue.

An inside spread from Nansen's first issue.

“I would prefer to take these terms at face value where ‘migrant’ means someone who’s moved to a new place, ‘immigrant’ is someone who has arrived to where you are and ‘emigrant’ is someone who has left, because that’s all those terms really mean. But of course I’m aware that for many people these terms are loaded with negative connotations,” she reflects.

“Personally, I see migrants as people who often take huge risks in the search for a better life for themselves and their families, and work very hard to see that vision through. That’s a definition that seems to encompass people from a very wide range of visa categories, from asylum seekers to expats to business people who are invited to countries because of the wealth they are expected to bring. When you boil it down we’re all leaving behind loved ones, our support networks, and stepping into the unknown.

“Gathering all the different kinds of people who fit under this umbrella and examining what we have in common, how we can relate to each other, but also what sets us apart — that’s what we want to do with Nansen.

“Plenty of people who are, by definition, ‘migrants’, reject the term because of those negative connotations, and many people can escape it because of certain privileges they’ve been afforded. By introducing our readers to different kinds of migrants, we hope to expand the way the world sees migrants and the way we, as migrants, see ourselves.”