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MARIA SKOBTSOVA HOUSE and COMMUNITY

“Give from the heart since each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.” Maria Skobtsova

Our house and community is named after Maria Skobtsova, a Russian Orthodox Saint and Martyr who took care of Russian refugees, migrants, the homeless and Jewish people in Paris during the last century.  Maria Skobtsova House works in this spirit amongst refugees in Calais, offering them a place of sanctuary, support and love.

Guests

Our guests are amongst the most vulnerable from within the Calais refugee community, a particular welcome being offered to woman and women with children.

A former guest from Eritrea now living in UK, writes: “It’s difficult to explain by words what we get as help or support from Maria Skobtsova House. Because for us you know living in Calais costs many many things, so without the support of this house it’s very hard to live in Calais. For example, when I came to the house for the first time I was sick. I can’t resist the pain so did you think I can survive without the help of this house?  No never. The chapel is helpful for us. It’s like bridge with our God. It help us to be faithful in God. Prayer makes everybody strong. This house help us to love each other and to have a good relationship with others and we get lovely and supportive friends from this house”.  

Daily Life in Maria Skobtsova House

Guests and volunteers live together in the house, sharing the daily domestic tasks of cleaning and cooking. We place special emphasis on the importance of all the household eating as a community together around the dining table. There is a daily rhythm of prayer in the chapel in which everyone can participate, and the opportunity to join in English lessons, trips to the beach and other recreational activities.

Volunteers

“As a volunteer the house teaches me a lot about my position as a European, as a human and as a follower of the Prince of Peace. While Calais breathes deprivation and injustice, Maria Skobtsova House contributes to a dissent.”  Chana 20. The Netherlands. Volunteer in Maria Skobtsova House

Maria Skobtsova House relies on volunteers for the day to day running of the house. We are looking for people with mature and warm personalities, able to be flexible and able to adapt quickly to changing situations and contribute to and maintain a family atmosphere.

If interested, please contact the secretary, Patricia Wendzinsky-McDyer patagape@hotmail.fr  or mariaskobtsovahousecalais@gmail.com

Donations

Our work is only possible thanks to donations by individual people, by churches, parishes and religious communities.

ORTHODOX CHRISTMAS 2021

Praying in front of the Orthodox Selassie (Trinity) in Église St Joseph

Continuing with the tradition of the past few years, we had a wonderful celebration of Eritrean/Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas on January 7th. Thanks to Père Pierre Poidevin, and the invaluable support of Sr. Henriette, more than 60 Eritreans came for a 3 hour prayer service led by two Eritrean deacons in Église St Joseph. A fine team of Eritrean refugees prepared a celebratory ‘habesha’ meal for 150 of their community.. Because of Covid, this had to be outdoors…and mercifully it was dry all day.

Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK) provided a stack of supplies to help prepare the meal. Véronique Pigeon, a great friend of the house, Elise from the Women’s Centre, and Marion from Utopia 56 helped transport people from the Eritrean camps to St Joseph’s Church. Secours Catholique provided a vehicle, and the gas burner on which the ‘Zigni’ (beef stew) was cooked. Care4Calais, knowing we would be celebrating Orthodox Christmas, arrived to join in, bearing gifts for the refugees. Many people contributed financially to help the Christmas celebration. We are deeply grateful for all the support we received.

Orthodox prayer in Église St Joseph
Kilos and kilos of onions for the ‘Zigni’
14 kilos of beef for the Zigni
The Injera production team
Hundreds of Injera
Zigni’, injera and salad, BMX car park
The celebrations continue
Sunset Christmas Day

First Impressions of Calais and Maria Skobtsova House September 2020.

Calais, a city in the North of France. Calais, a city where people are looking for the sun. The train towards the city is a train through long landscapes. The closer to Calais, the scarcer the population and the more signs of the end of France. Trucks with signs “No, we don’t go to the UK,” to migrants on the station asking me for a train ticket, to great numbers of security in the surrounding infrastructure. Its harbour to England attracts many sad looking industries, as well as hopeful migrants. 

Maria Skobtsova House welcomed me with a deep sense of rest. It breathes a certain togetherness, a value that seems radical in this town. The raw reality touches us daily. Our friends, the guests, have arrived in the house on a journey. Sometimes this means that they’re ‘leaving’, sometimes with and sometimes without goodbyes. We don’t ask how and when, we only try to love them. This makes the people, including us, vulnerable, but the rhythm of a little community breathes this primary rest. As volunteers, we pray three times a day, which is open for the guests to join. Besides, we walk with each other, love and welcome. The dinners together are a mix of herbs and languages. 

Once in a while the doorbell rings unexpectedly. During my first days, a family returned after several days away. Together with their brothers, they stood on the doorstep, soaked and sleep deprived. They asked if we would welcome them again. The house awakened and warm showers, tea with too much sugar, shoes and a domino game came up. I tried to follow the rules of the domino, but it must have been their local version. As I tried to get the hang of it, my opponent announced that I had won. How could it be? I didn’t even know the rules. My friend, a woman from the South, walked by and said laughing that I was Europe.  

As a volunteer the house teaches me a lot about my position as European, as human and as a follower of the Prince of Peace. While Calais breathes deprivation and injustice, Maria Skobtsova House contributes to a dissent. This does not mean it is easy, rather the situation raises a lot of questions. However, it is a privilege to build on the promise of Psalm 91:1: “He who dwells in the Shelter of the Most High, will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.”

Channa, 20. The Netherlands. Volunteer in Maria Skobtsova House

Orthodox Easter 2020

ORTHODOX EASTER 2020

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Easter under lockdown. Long term  Maria Skobtsova House volunteer Roman writes “We give thanks to God on this most holy day of all for bringing us all together, uniting us in communion through Christ, our risen Lord. We give thanks for all the experiences of joy, laughter but also sadness and anxiety that we go through here to grow nearer to God, to Truth, to Love.

We would like to give thanks to all the residents, the board members, the volunteers present in the house now and who have been here in the past and will be in the future, the donators and fellow organisation members working together with us for the same goal, for all the prayers and help that has come to support us from all around the world to provide help to people who are in a very difficult situation. We ask Him to always keep each one of us under the protection of His Holy Spirit. To always give strength, clarity and guidance to follow the true path back to our Home, the Kingdom of Heaven. Christ has risen! He truly is risen!”

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Ambasha and Injera

Preparing the meal for the celebration in our house and for around 100 Eritrean guys in the Jungle. Two big pots of traditional food, plus 500 injeras and 16 ambasha breads were made in a day. We were lucky this time to be given already boiled eggs so we missed all the fun of peeling 100+ eggs.food prep

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Utopia 56 delivered the feast to the Eritrean refugee community living outdoors

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“We are all celebrating great Easter. Everybody is happy for your organisation helping our Fasika. We thank you so much for your giving us love and support. We also thinking about Britain people because right now is you guys in the hard time to fight against corona virus. May God please end up virus. With God all thinks are possible.” (Eritrean refugee living outdoors in Calais)

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Maria Skobtsova House manager Kirrilee, and long term volunteers Merilin, Maria and Roman.

The Hour of Dawn

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THE HOUR OF DAWN

 A certain wise Teacher asked his students “how do we determine the hour of dawn, when night ends and day begins?” One replied “When you can distinguish a sheep from a dog.” No said the Teacher. “When you can distinguish a fig tree from a grapevine.” No, said the Teacher. “Then tell us”. “It is when you can look into the face of human beings and have enough light to recognize them as your sisters and brothers. Until then, it is night and darkness is still with us.” (Hasidic tale)

In a recent BBC news item entitled “Coronavirus deepens struggle for migrants”, veteran BBC correspondent Fergal Keane travelled to Calais where hundreds of would-be UK asylum seekers are crowded into small tents and where there is no possibility of social distancing. He begins his report with these words: “For people already living on the margins, the arrival of the coronavirus has been nothing but catastrophic”.

“Have some pity”, says a volunteer with the French association Salam, “you wouldn’t do this to a dog would you? So you’re doing it to human beings who are fleeing war. I’m ashamed to be French”. He is speaking to Fergal Keane beside a swathe of small tents packed together on wasteland in Calais. This area is known as the Jungle. “We’re afraid of the virus” says one of the community living there, “but we can’t do anything. It’s really dangerous”

Five hundred metres away in the lee of the UK-funded “security” wall and overlooked by the Calais football stadium is a narrow strip of land, “home” for some of the Eritrean refugee community . Their tents are sandwiched between the wall, an ironically useful place to shelter from the rain and hang wet clothes and shoes, and a dirty, rat-infested stream. A hoodie on the washing line is emblazoned with the words “This Life is your Adventure. Stay Tough”.

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The lockdown in France began on 17th March. Many of the volunteer groups working to support the refugee community in Calais began withdrawing. On March 25th Abel messaged me “We don’t get any food today. I don’t know what can we do right now. But we will see what happens next day.”  A day later Merhawi wrote “We have some food but not like past. Little bit hard but no problem God always with us and you” And a few days later, Abel again, “Today we having lunch and breakfast. Don’t worry about it. We are at the moment good. But thank you for asking. Good night. Sweet dreams”

From the end of March the talk has been about plans by the French authorities to move the refugee community in Calais to safe accommodation in unused hotels and hostels. “We are all fine. We have food. We have charge for phones. Maybe we go camp this week” Merhawi told me “I am not happy to move but I think it’s very important” Abel sounded more positive about the plan: “We have much more food and water. So far none sick for us. They tell to us that it’s voluntary to go to the hotels. I personally accept this because it’s important for me to save the life. I tell you soon what happens. Stay strong with your own family. See you tomorrow”.Meanwhile, every second day, the police continue with the policy of dismantling the camps.

“How do we determine the hour of dawn, when night ends and day begins?” runs the Hasidic tale. Michael is a young Deacon in the Eritrean Orthodox church. He is in Calais after years of being shunted from one European country to another. “It is fine. God is with us. Don’t give up”.  “Peace and love for all people of the world. Let’s stand together to fight against the corona virus. I hope the best yet is coming soon for all of us” writes Abel.

In the midst of the current catastrophe, dawn breaks through.

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(all names changed: ongoing contact with the Eritrean refugee community in Calais is part of Maria Skobtsova House outreach)

Orthodox Christmas in Calais

ORTHODOX CHRISTMAS IN CALAIS 7th January 2020 

It has become a tradition for Maria Skobtsova House to enable the Eritrean and Ethiopian refugee community in Calais to celebrate Orthodox Christmas and Easter. Thanks to wonderful support from Father Bryan and Father Pierre, from Sister Henriette and Sister Monique, from Veronique, Sister Francoise, Martine, MSH volunteers and the incredible cooking team (Eritrean and Ethiopian women guests in MSH) this year’s Orthodox Christmas celebration was a memorable day. 60 of the refugee community came for prayer in St Joseph’s church, led by 3 Orthodox deacons from within the community, and 150 came for the celebratory  meal afterwards.

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For 2 days, MSH kitchen was a hive of activity:Preparing Hambasha bread 

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Hambasha bread

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400 Injera were made

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Stirring the Xigni (Eritrean/Ethiopian beef stew) on a burner in the courtyard

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150 hard-boiled eggs, the final addition to the Xigni

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Shoes are always removed before prayer

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Orthodox Christmas Prayer Service, St Joseph’s Calais

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The Three Orthodox Diakons, in white prayer shawls, leading prayer

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Nativity scene and Orthodox Selassie (Trinity) in front of St Joseph’s altar. The Selassie was formerly in the Big Jungle Orthodox Church (demolished 2016).

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Injera Xigni

The Feast is served: injera, xigni, salad

The Kentish Calais Diaries

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Pumpkin lantern prepared for feast at Maria Skobtsova House by K from Iran.

Day 1   I arrived in Calais on a very wet and windy Monday afternoon, rain lashing first on the deck of the ferry, then on the car windscreen. In Maria Skobtsova House, I am introduced to the current guests, who immediately brought me plates of Iranian food.  Of the 14 adults and 3 young children staying in the house, most are Iranians, one Ethiopian and one Eritrean with her little son. There is an inbuilt tension in that only women and children can stay overnight, while the men – husbands or sons – unless ill,  must sleep in the jungle or at a government night shelter – they call it 115. The priority is the most vulnerable, and at the moment this is the women and children. 

Day 2   Today, Alex, the other volunteer, ferried me around the outskirts of town on a sightseeing trip, visiting little and bigger ‘Jungles’.  One I remembered from 2 years ago, ‘the Little Forest’, is now completely fenced off, as are others. ‘Belgium Parking’ is now walled off.  There is a systematic clearing of camping spaces and closing them off to prevent resettlement.

We returned to the house and managed a lunch time prayer. Kirrilee, the Anglican refugee chaplain, who is the House manager, came around to chat. Her job consists of being parish priest to the Anglicans in the Nord Pas de Calais for half her time, and chaplain to refugees and volunteers the other half.  She tried to give me some guidelines for House management, as the dynamic has changed since Johannes left in April.  When Alex leaves on November 15th I shall be ‘in charge’ for the last bit of my stay.  The residents are brilliant at cleaning and catering for themselves, and us.  So maybe it won’t be too arduous. 

Day 3   L, the Ethiopian woman, took me to the ‘big Jungle’ to meet an Ethiopian whom my nephew Stephen had put me in touch with.  An hour’s walk to the periphery and we made lots of enquiries about ‘A’ from Ethiopia at La Vie Active food delivery point.  A good 200 people were scattered around and helpful people asked for photos, which I didn’t have, only a phone number, which was not producing a response.  Suddenly a smiling man appeared in front of me, bingo!

A was in a terrible shipwreck off the coast of Egypt.  Six hundred migrants were involved, of whom 30, including A, survived.  A has travelled through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and now France.  None of these countries has given a welcome, some more brutally rejecting than others.  He tries every night to jump on a lorry, or indeed any vehicle bound for the UK, yet he has so far failed. He showed me his tent, just off a motorway embankment, almost in a ditch.  Conditions are indeed filthy, and in our walk we saw at least 2 dead rats.  The rain hasn’t helped.   Despite a good tent, covered by a tarpaulin, rain runs down the embankment over the groundsheet. 

Day 4   In the early evening the house is suddenly filled with 10 of the residents, who have had an adventure. They had gone down to the beach but were picked up by the police and taken to the Coquelles detention centre for questioning, since they couldn’t produce any papers. The group was in gales of laughter as they showed pictures and videos of themselves in the centre. The police not only released them quickly but dropped them back in the town centre in 2 cars.  ‘We are your taxi service!’ they told them.

Day 7    The BIGGEST news in the house yesterday was that J and B reached England. So much rejoicing in the house, along the lines of ‘they can do it, so can we’. 

Day 21   Two days ago D came in from the Jungle saying the ‘CAPS’ (CRS riot police) had been to visit, and that M. had been arrested.   Both had said they were 17 and had not been fingerprinted, but one was taken and the other left (like in the Bible).  He was released later in the day after 7 hours in the ‘Deport Centre’ and caught a bus back into town, returning full of the adventure.  ‘First time in prison’ he boasts, a bit dazed.  His mother had been frantic with worry.

Postscript  14 out of the 17 people I met in Calais are now in the UK.  I am still working out what to think about it all.  A unique experience, and what am I called to do about it? 

Barbara Kentish. November 2019

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Residents’  Art and Textiles workshop display of hats and pictures

“I am standing at the door, knocking.”

“Christian love teaches us to give our brother and sister not only material gifts but also spiritual gifts”  (Maria Skobtsova)

MARIA SKOBTSOVA ICONS

“Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door,  I will come in to share their meal, side by side with them.” Rev. 3:20

ICONS for Maria Skobtsova House have been written by  volunteer ARTA SKUJA who comes from the small village of Užava in Latvia.
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The central icon, Christ Knocking at the Door, together with Theotokos, the God bearer, and Archangel Michael, form a triptych that tells a story of Tenderness, Hope and Safety. The creation of these icons, inspired by the experiences, stories, reflections and life lived alongside the refugees in Calais, is an offering of hope. Words from the book of Revelation come alive – at any time of the day the doorbell can ring at the Calais house. The door is opened, and one encounters sometimes a lone figure, at other times a small group of refugees. By using simple words, they describe their needs: phone charge, shower, wifi, sleep. A stranger is welcomed, offered a place to rest, to pray, to wash clothes, to take a shower. Each evening the table is prepared, the meal is cooked, blessed and shared, side-by-side, among those who have come together.
Arta Skuja

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Matthew 11, v 28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” Drawing, in Tigrinya, by Daniel, Maria Skobtsova house guest.

Farewell Br. Johannes

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Br. Johannes with Patricia Wendzinski, Secretary of Maria Skobtsova Association

FAREWELL Br.JOHANNES June 19th 2019

Leaving Calais.
Dear friends,
after serving more than three and a half years for Maria Skobtsova House and amongst the refugees in Calais (and the UK) the time has come for me to take a long break and leave.
The times with all of you has been such a blessing and together with many volunteers we were able to help so many people. The house will continue doing so with current and future volunteers. Please keep supporting and praying for the house!
yours faithfully,
Johannes

Haile and the Black Hair Dye

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-Rahel, do you need juice and yoghurt tomorrow for Yusef?

She smiles and says thank you. Two year old Yusef, in nappies and t-shirt, is playing with a toy car on the gravel footpath beside which twenty or so tents are pitched. This is the Eritrean “camp” in Calais.

Dumoo, dumoo, squeals Yusef. The biddable black cat emerges from the long grass. Yusef scoops it up and it hangs limply from his arms.

-Baba Alex, will you get me tinta.

It’s tall, beaming Haile.

-Haile, what’s tinta?

Black tinta for hair.

-Haile..why do you want black tinta?

– My hair going brown. Too much sun.

Sure enough, the tips of his tall spirals of hair are distinctively brown.

-Ok Haile, I’ll bring you hair dye tomorrow.

 Hair dye, that’s a first. Curious to learn more about this browning, I google. The “Locs Therapist” in Georgia, Alabama, informs viewers of his facebook video that discolouration can result from too much sun, poor diet and stress. Haile ticks all the boxes.

Teinture pour les cheveux noirs. I try first at a pharmacy. The assistant offers me an “all-natural” product for twelve euros. In my poor French, I politely decline. Carrefour in the same shopping mall has Kera teinture bleu noir for four. I’m confused by the bleu bit, but take my chances and buy it. I cycle to the Eritrean “camp” with juice and yoghurt for Rahel and the four euro tinta for Haile. It’s mid-morning and already into the low thirties. It’s due to top forty later in the day. The tents are still in the shaded lee of the wall. There’s no sign of Haile so I give the tinta to Osman and ask him to pass it on.

I return in the afternoon. A dozen young guys squeeze into the circle of shade cast by the single young ash tree. There’s an intense game of cards underway; others are sleeping. Haile is sitting crossed legged on the burnt out grass, eyes closed, smiling broadly as his gloved accomplice Mewael vigorously  works black dye into his hair with a tooth brush. The tooth brush is then discarded and Mawael now rubs the dye into Haile’s thick mop with his gloved hand. A second accomplice, Semare, dips the corner of an old t-shirt into a cup of water and wipes away smudges of dye on Haile’s neck. Work on the crop of hair completed, Mewael now turns his attention to Haile’s pencil thin sideboards that taper to a point just below the line of his ear lobes. The task is delicately achieved using a dry stem of grass.

-don’t touch, says Haile – He’s seen my intense interest. –tinta stays many days on your skin. He shows me the tip of his stained black thumb. 

I have to leave, but later return. It’s night time. Haile’s jet black hair glows in the glare of the streetlights.

Alex Holmes  July 2019.
(Haile is now an asylum seeker in UK)