WOW. How to even begin …
I’ll just have to start at the beginning and see how this comes out …
Me and Haydn arrived at 11 o’clock at night at the front door of Sylvie’s house in Calais. After emailing the Help Refugees volunteers and asking for where to stay they suggested Sylvie’s place. We had cycled through the empty Calais streets at night – high residential tower block after tower block on either side of the road. I felt embarrassed it was so late and realised in this moment, stood on this doorstep, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Not of Sylvie, not of her house, or the warehouse where people worked, or of any people here and what they were doing day-to-day. We knocked on the door. It opened and stood there was a very petite, middle-aged woman with short grey hair and a wonderfully kind smile. She shook both our hands and then asked us quietly in perfect English to walk around to the back of the house with our bikes as the front door ‘didn’t work’. She then closed the door that seemed to work perfectly. We found out about that mystery later.
We pushed our bikes in through the back door and into her utility room come garage that was filled with recycling and bikes and household clutter. Sylvie gave us both a big hug. You know that feeling you get when you can just tell someone is a good egg? You don’t have to have any evidence – you just know. Sylvie was a good egg – a really good one – I could feel it. She looked at us seriously and said – Well done for coming here. Her earnestness was heart-warming but also made me anxious. What was this place going to be like?
She welcomed us into her small, chic kitchen and introduced us to the other volunteers staying with her. They were four young people, about our age, sat around the kitchen table. Rose, David, Fabio and Jack. An English-Parisian, a New Yorker, an Italian and an Alaskan. They were a wonderful bunch and we got talking to them straight away. I felt like we’d just walked into the best hostel I’d ever been to. We went to put our bags upstairs and when walking past the living room we saw two young children, a little girl and her older brother, sat on the sofa. Sylvie said for them to come and meet us and they shot up off the sofa and came to shake our hands. These were her children. This woman was brilliant.
We left the house at 8.30am the following morning after an evening of long, in-depth conversation around the table. As we were locking up I asked David, the lovely man from New York, why we had to shut all the electronic blinds and use the back door to leave. He explained that the local residents were so disapproving of Sylvie having volunteers to stay, that she had to take every precaution to avoid direct harassment and property damage. One of those was for us (the demon volunteers) to always use the back door so that hopefully only the neighbours directly behind her house would see us coming and going. He explained that people had already attempted to break the windows a few times and someone had made a gash with a crowbar on the electric blinds in front of the living-room. Could the inhabitants of Calais really be that against us volunteering our time to help some people in need?
Oh how naïve I was.