From the outside, the tiny café Elleboode doesn’t look out of the ordinary. But step inside and you’ll see an unusual scene in Dunkirk, France.
About two dozen young Kurdish men sit comfortably at the café’s tables, sipping warm drinks. Here barely any French is spoken. Folks mix a little English with Kurdish words.
Laura Six is the owner and bartender here. She opened her café in 2013, but she says business only began to pick up three months ago, when waves of Kurdish migrants settled at the nearby camp in Grande-Synthe.
With her new clientele, the 24-year old Dunkirk native had to learn some Kurdish. Six says she quickly learned how to say “Hello sir. How are you, what will you drink?” And more direct requests like “Give me the money.”
"And, ‘Nachum brudere, kaka’ which means: ‘if you’re not going to drink, man, get out of here!'” she says, laughing.
Six says she’s not selling a lot of beer or wine these days, since most of her new customers are Muslim and follow the religion's ban on drinking alcohol. “There are a lot of migrants here,” she says, “so that means a lot more hot tea and hot chocolate.”
The young men here seem completely at ease. They spend hours in what’s become their daytime home. For people who live in small tents in the freezing and muddy camp, the café is one of the few places where they can find warmth and camaraderie.
"It’s a lot of youth, but also men from 20 to 50 or 60 years of age as well," Six says. "Women are rare, they tend to stay at the camp. Guys come in, they drink their tea and they charge their cell phones."
They also play pool and foosball. Sometimes, Six even plays with them. She jokes that her tiny café has turned into a tea room and an entertainment arcade.
It’s clear Six cares about these men. Cell phones are the migrants’ lifeline to friends and family around the world, so when all the electrical outlets are occupied with charging cell phones, she takes out large power strips from behind the bar. There are always four or five in use at a time.
Laura Six’s good customer service is sincere, but these young men are helping her out too. She says the café was barely surviving before they arrived. So those young Kurds ordering tea all day long may have helped her keep her business going.
But do her new customers keep the locals away?
“Customers were already scarce before,” she says. “Some stopped coming, some died, some didn’t come at all. But the Kurds are very nice to me, much nicer than the French. They are kinder, and they treat me like their sister. It’s great because they are a bit like my bodyguards.”
Still, this young, blonde bartender is no pushover. She knows how to handle her male customers when they get out of line. She calls to one of the guys dancing around with a pool cue.
“Ayoub!” she yells across the room. “I’m gonna kick you hard! Stay down.”
Six acknowledges that not everyone in town appreciates the migrants. For example, the lack of showers at the camp became an issue in the town last month.
"They’re in the mud all day, the showers are dirty or don’t function well at the camp, so it’s impossible to wash," Six says. "That’s why they all go to the public swimming pools to shower.”
And that upset some Dunkirk residents and started rumors that the migrants were spreading disease.
Standing behind the bar, Six shrugs off the controversy.
“The thing is, in here, we don’t look at them as migrants, we look at them as normal people,” she says. “But many people do discriminate, and turn them away. The migrants come where they feel welcome. And at least, when they are here, it’s clear what they are doing,” she says. “If they’re at my place, they’re not on the streets.”