Portrait Emma Westenberg_Calais_migrants – Eigen foto – own picture
Emma Westenberg. Image credit: Own photo

Emma yearned to find work at a non-governmental organisation before starting university, but it proved difficult. “NGOs don’t have time to search for volunteers, there is too much to plan: when should we meet, do you need a visa, how soon can you get here.”

Instead of finding an NGO, Emma reached out to Indigo Volunteers, an organisation that matches volunteers with NGOs based on their skills and interests. “Indigo connected me with Calais Food Collective because I speak French and English. I’ve always wanted to work in the humanitarian sector so it was a nice way to start”.

A tarp and two sticks

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Packing onions with Alicia, from bulk items to smaller bags to more easily distribute them when on the field Image credit: Own photo

Calais is a city in France across the Channel from the United Kingdom, connected to it by train and boat – a perfect pit stop for migrants to replenish their bodies with fresh food. Calais Food Collective worked in a refugee camp based on a large field away from the city center. She would roll a wheelbarrow into the field filled to the brim with boxes of grains, vegetables, and fruits. Working 12-hour days alongside the other volunteers, she would distribute the food on a field where migrants had set up camp with a tarp and two sticks beneath the few bushes.

The migrants set up their own camp in groups, and the volunteers, early in the morning, made a map of all the areas they stayed in to estimate the food supply that they needed.  Emma explained, “We packed boxes with different ingredients for them to cook themselves, we wanted to promote individualism”. And of course, there were favourites, “Sardines, bread and oil was the shit. People went crazy for bread.”

Police evictions

Emma Westenberg_Calais_migrants_broken watercan – Eigen foto – own picture
A vandalised water can at the camp. Image credit: Own photo

The refugees were pushed from the city center as far as possible, because Calais is, according to Emma, ‘not proud’ of the high influx of migrants. “Police evictions happened every 48 hours, it would become a daily routine where migrants would pick up their tents, travel 8 kilometres in the other direction, only to come back the next day”. If this wasn’t bad enough, the police, or residents of Calais would cut holes in the buckets that held fresh water for the migrants.

Coming from Canada and seeing such a stark contrast in lifestyle was not easy. After each session the volunteers had a debrief session to comprehend distressing situations. “When I told the refugees I was from Canada, men asked to marry me. They said it as a joke, but some asked seriously, so I could sign their papers and told me to ask Justin Trudeau for their citizenship.” It was difficult to find a reply. “What was I supposed to reply? Good luck? I would say no, but they kept pushing and asking why.”

On the other hand, there were celebratory moments. For Emma, it was easier to relate to migrants on the topic of football, as she is passionate about it. “It was 2021, so we screened the European Championship final between Italy vs. England – and all of them wanted England to win because they wanted to get there. They already felt proud towards the country”. Although England lost, the fact that ‘everyone surrounded the screen together –  including the volunteers – was really beautiful’.

Future ambitions

Emma Westenberg_Calais_migrants_food – Eigen foto – own picture
Food for the migrants in the Calais camp. Image credit: Own photo

While the work could be extremely rewarding, Emma felt like she was never doing enough. “You’d think that with two months of me working there, things would change. But no, even after two years, things haven’t changed”. Emma keeps in contact with fellow volunteers and explains the ‘vicious circle’ that they are trapped in – they still serve as many migrants as they did when she worked there. “Nothing will change until policies and institutions are modified”.

“I want to be involved in humanitarian work and change something.” Emma wants to pursue her master’s in humanitarian work, so she can come back and make a real difference in the way policies are made. She also hopes to create a platform similar to Indigo volunteers, but for students.