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.
For 2 days, MSH kitchen was a hive of activity:Preparing Hambasha bread
400 Injera were made
Stirring the Xigni (Eritrean/Ethiopian beef stew) on a burner in the courtyard
150 hard-boiled eggs, the final addition to the Xigni
Shoes are always removed before prayer
Orthodox Christmas Prayer Service, St Joseph’s Calais
The Three Orthodox Diakons, in white prayer shawls, leading prayer
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).
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 2Today, 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 4In 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 7The 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 21Two 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.
Postscript14 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
Residents’ Art and Textiles workshop display of hats and pictures
“Christian love teaches us to give our brother and sister not only material gifts but also spiritual gifts” (Maria Skobtsova)
MARIA SKOBTSOVA PRAYER BUS
The Prayer Bus project evolved in response to the need for a mobile space which can be driven to where refugees are sleeping, to provide a small but safe place where they can tell their stories, receive support and, if needed, pray. For many refugees and migrants, religious faith is a very important source of strength and resilience. ICONS for the Prayer Bus have been written by Maria Skobtsova House volunteer ARTA SKUJA who comes from the small village of Užava in Latvia.
“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
This icon, 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
Revd. Canon KIRRILEE REID, Pas de Calais Anglican chaplain and refugee projects officer, photographed alongside the bus which is now in the UK for a refit. Kirrilee has taken on responsibility for the prayer bus (which will also be used by the Calais Catholic Church as part of their service to the homeless). Revd. GILL NEWMAN, deacon at St John of Jerusalem, Hackney and Maria Skobtsova House volunteer, ran the very successful fundraising campaign for The Prayer Bus.
As with all the refugee communities in Calais, the Eritreans have been progressively fenced out of the areas where they sleep, pray and pass their days.
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.
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
-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)
9.25am, La Pass, the medical drop in centre, is still closed. Nebiyou’s ripped hand, heavily bandaged, rests limply in a sling. He spent two weeks in a specialist surgical unit in Lille after his hand was badly cut on razor wire whilst trying to run from the CRS, the French riot Police. One finger was sliced in two lengthwise.
We wait patiently at the locked door.
Awate arrives. He presses his scarf to his lips. There’s blood on his white hoodie and on the sleeves of his denim coat. Livid raw skin to the side of his left eye. “It was the CRS” he said, “they hit me with an electric baton on my face and on my head and on my back.”
Osman, another Eritrean, joins us outside the door, pink fresh skin on his dark face. “I’m ok now”, he reassures me.
Two Eritreans. I ask them if they’ve seen Nahom, and describe the boy with the broken teeth. They haven’t.
9.30, the sullen security guard, proffering a single wink, unlocks the door. Nebiyou checks in at the desk. Awate comes into the waiting room and slumps into a chair, leaning forward, head held in his hands. Osman has disappeared. We wait in the plastic and chrome silence.
Beside the football stadium, a group of young Eritreans. Amongst them, Mebrahtu, his hand no longer bandaged. The scar on the ball of his thumb, a distant bird in flight, is punctuated by twelve neat stitch marks. A CRS officer stamped on his hand which was split open by a buried spike.
“It’s the same here as in Eritrea”, he says. “I’d as well be back home”. His smile belies a deep suffering.
There’s music, the surprising sound of Nashville in Calais: “One day at a time, sweet Jesus, that’s all I’m asking from You, just give me the strength to do everyday what I have to do”.
“My friend in Holland told me about this song,” Yoel explains. “One day, one day I will get to UK”
The ever smiling Yoel, it’s two years since I first met him in Calais. He’s had a haircut and looks much younger.
They’ve not seen Nahom. Time to move on.
A solitary hooded figure slowly paces the back road in the shadow of the industrial zone. At last, Nahom. He’s lost in the music he’s listening to on his phone, mezmurs, Orthodox Christian chants. Seeing me, he pulls out his earphones and grins broadly, baring his broken teeth. Discharged from hospital after falling from a lorry and losing his front teeth, he came to stay in Maria Skobtsova House for a few days, before suddenly vanishing. During one quiet moment, he spoke of Eritrea, of how his family house had been destroyed in the war with Ethiopia, of the years of harsh military conscription. After three years in the army, he ran away to see his family, then escaped to Ethiopia. He showed me the burn marks on his feet from when he was held to ransom and tortured in Libya. Finally he reached the UK only to have his asylum application refused. Under the Dublin Regulation, because he had been fingerprinted in Italy, he was deported there. Tired and hungry on the streets of Naples he had accepted the offer of bread and water only to pass out and awaken to find his jacket and boots stolen.
After a big embrace and checking he is ok, we talk football, and about friends in common, now in the UK. I tell him he is welcome in the house anytime.
“I will come, yes.” He is silent for a moment, perhaps registering my concern. “I am ok”, he reassures me, “I am ok because I have God.” We part with another embrace.
Earphoned once more, he continues his lone path.
Alex Holmes May 2019. (Nahom is now an asylum seeker in UK)
2018, Passion Friday. Maria Skobtsova House in Calais, France.
Drop, drop slow tears…
Orlando Gibbons tender hymn, so fitting for today. The tears of Mary Magdalene washing Jesus’ feet. It also echoes in our walking with Jesus to his death on a cross today.
Jesus cried out in a loud voice saying, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ With these words he breathed his last.
His still warm, but lifeless body is taken down from the cross. A body too big to hold in one’s lap, broken, bruised, bloody and dirty.
As in Michelangelo’s Pieta, any mother would do the same, she would take her beloved child’s body. Her body, blood and broken heart, into her arms. She would tenderly hold it, caress the wounds, kiss it, sing a lullaby and whisper words of love.
Somewhere in Eritrea there is a mother whose name we will not know, whose grief we will not see. She has her own Passion Friday. Her beloved son has died. She doesn’t know about it yet, but one day soon, a zinc casket will arrive carrying the remains of a son who walked for miles, crossed deserts and seas. Away, far, far from home, in search of a better life. He is lifeless and cold, and her Pieta is emptyhanded.
Today his friends have arrived to travel to the mortuary. Can we see his whole body, they ask. They can see only his face, and are told, that it is best not to see more. Perhaps, when they were left alone to mourn, to pray, they opened the white bag and lovingly touched their friend, who is, and is no more among the living. And with this they entrusted him into the loving arms of God.
Drop, drop slow tears…
Let us wrap His body in fine linen, let us carry Him gently to a fresh grave.
Let us stay with Him in silence and nothingness.
Let us be God bearers, in living and dying, hoping in the Resurrection and the Life everlasting.
On July 20th the Eastern Orthodox Church commemorates Righteous Martyr Maria Skobtsova. In 1945 she died in Ravensbrück concentration camp.
Her earthly journey was only 53 years long, but she managed to life, as some suggest, three lives. Mother Maria’s heart from a very young age carried a deep wisdom of Love that is ready to live and die for others.
If living is preparing for dying, the emptying and abandonment of one’s self, then we see, that Maria Skobtsova’s life is filled with such events, that lead to contemplating death and repeatedly to respond and enter the fragility of life. She lost her beloved father in early teens, she knew what it meant to love someone deeply and to be rejected. She experienced the violence of two wars, the loss of her brother, the loss of her country. She became a refugee. She lost her young daughter. Her two marriages fell apart. Her oldest daughter Gayana died. She experienced the occupation of her adopted home country. And then, her third child, son Yurii, was to share in the death of a martyr in another concentration camp.
In 1926, Maria Skobtsova keeps a long vigil, at the bedside of her dying child. Staying in the hospital with her for days and nights, watching and praying. She takes paper and pencils to bear witness and to share her pain, drawing a moving series of portraits of her daughter.
When four-year-old Nastya dies, Maria Skobtsova, a mother in mourning, hears God’s call to be born again in all embracing motherhood. In time it leads her to make a monastic profession and to receive the religious name of Mother Maria, after the mother of Jesus, the mother of all.
In her writings, Mother Maria, says, that we must more fully imitate the Mother of God in her journey with Christ. Not only in the Annunciation or the God bearing in bringing forth the newness of life rooted in Jesus, but to walk all the way to Golgotha. There we must go and live the compassion fully, where we are called co suffer, to co – die with Jesus, who is in every sister and brother we meet.
And sorrow, like a sharp sword, will break your own heart…
Archive footage shows her in Paris in 1930ties, wearing her black habit, a round, open face, wide hand gestures and a broad smile, so full of life. So very close and human.
A woman who, on several occasions, had been in Mother Maria’s cell (a space under the stairs without a proper door that served as her room, studio and a place where she had private conversations with the many house visitors), remembers her last visit. Mother Maria hangs vegetables and herbs on a string for drying and enthusiastically explains to her how to properly dry berries and carrots, etc., so that when there is nothing fresh to use, one can make a lovely soup with their dry reserves. She recalls that as they sat there talking about vegetable dehydration, she realized that in front of her is a saint, behind whose cheap metal glasses, are eyes that see profoundly, eyes that understand the human fragility, eyes that have faced death and the Love of God.
These very same glasses were taken away and broken, when Mother Maria was imprisoned in a concentration camp, but that did not stop her from seeing Jesus in every person she encountered. The more miserable and poor one was, the more loved by her.
On Thursday the 19th of April 2018 we had a school group joining us at Maria Skobtsova House from the south of England. Pupils from a Bruderhof school came to experience how refugees in Calais have to survive. A part of the group had joined the Warehouse and the Refugee Community Kitchen and the younger ones (16) joined us at the house. In the afternoon they went to distribute bottles of water to the young refugees at “Little Forrest.” To us access to drinking water or water for hygiene is the most natural thing. In Calais refugees have limited access to water – during office hours – and their are only a few distribution points for water. Outside these hours refugees are dependent on volunteers handing out water. The bottles of water were gone within a few minutes and left a lasting impression on the pupils.