Emma worked in a refugee camp in Calais: ‘Even after two years, nothing has changed’


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Emma had hoped to find a job with an NGO before starting her studies at university, but that proved difficult. “NGOs don’t have time to look for volunteers because it requires too much work: arrange a time for an interview, possibly arrange a visa, see when someone can start.”

When Emma couldn’t find an NGO, she contacted Indigo Volunteers, an organization that connects volunteers with NGOs based on their skills and interests. “Indigo linked me to the Calais Food Collective because I speak French and English. I’ve always wanted to work in the humanitarian sector, so this was a good start.”

A piece of sail and two sticks

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Calais is a city in France separated from Great Britain by the English Channel. You can make the crossing from Calais by train or boat – making it a perfect pit stop for migrants to recover. The Calais Food Collective worked in a refugee camp in a large field outside the city centre. Every day Emma drove a wheelbarrow full of boxes of grain, vegetables and fruit out into the field. Together with the other volunteers, she worked twelve-hour days. She distributed the food in a field where migrants had built tents out of a piece of tarpaulin and two sticks under the few bushes.

The migrants had set up their own camp in groups. The volunteers mapped the sleeping areas early in the morning to estimate how much food they needed. Emma explains: “To promote self-reliance, we packed boxes with ingredients that they had to prepare themselves.” Of course, some foods were particularly popular. “Sardines, bread and oil were the most sought after. The bread was almost torn from your hands.”

Police evictions

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The refugees were kept as far away from the city center as possible because Calais says Emma is “not proud” of the large influx of migrants. “Every 48 hours the police cleared the camp. It became a daily ritual: migrants packed their tents, moved to a place eight kilometers away, and the next day they were there again.” As if that was not enough, the police or the residents of Calais made holes in the migrants’ drinking water buckets.

For Emma, ​​who is from Canada, it was quite difficult to work with people who were so much less fortunate than her. After each working day, the volunteers met to discuss difficult situations. “When I told the refugees that I’m from Canada, some men proposed to me. They said it jokingly, but some meant it seriously: if I could sign their papers and ask Justin Trudeau if they could become Canadian citizens. ” She wasn’t sure how to respond to this. “What else could I say? Good luck? I always said no, but they kept pushing and asking why I said no.”

But there were also beautiful moments. Emma was more able to connect with the migrants when she talked about football, which is her passion. “It was 2021, so we showed the final of the European Championship between Italy and England on a big screen – they all hoped that England would win because they wanted to get there. They already felt some national pride.” Although England lost, it was really nice to see “everyone – including the volunteers – sitting in front of the screen together.”

Ambitions for the future

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Although the work could be very rewarding, Emma always felt like she was never doing enough. “One would expect that something would change in the two months I worked there. But it was not. Even after two years, nothing has changed.” Emma is still in contact with the other volunteers and explains that they are caught in a ‘vicious cycle’ – they are still helping as many migrants as they did then. “Something will only change if politics and authorities change.”

“I want to do humanitarian work after my studies and change things.” Emma wants to do a masters in humanitarian work so she can come back and make a real difference in the way politics are made. She also hopes to establish a platform like Indigo Volunteers, but for students.

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