“For my webshop, I collaborated with two men from Turkey. They would take time off when their wives had a doctor’s appointment so they could translate for them,” Petra Prent shares how her idea for ‘Mijn Buuf’ came to be. With the new influx of refugees, Petra noticed the same thing happening: “Women who follow after their husbands practically disappear after their naturalization term. While they are responsible for raising a new generation of Dutch people.” With an all Dutch radio station on and the purring of sewing machines in the background, Petra and co-founder Nicole van Vonderen recount how Mijn Buuf helps these women (re)gain control over their lives.
Petra and Nicole met each other years ago in The Hague, the Netherlands, at their daughters’ sports club. “We got along because both of us cheered on the sidelines in our blue jackets.” At the time, Nicole earned a living as a marketeer and Petra had her own company, while doing volunteer work. As a language buddy for refugees, she came to realize that a lot of women with a linguistic disadvantage barely leave their homes. With the arrival of even more refugees, she decided to make a change. Nicole did the same thing after her mother passed away, who, on her sick bed, told Nicole her life hadn’t gone the way she had wanted. Nicole quit her job, started her own company and contemplated on the social impact she could make.
Market research on a bicycle
“That’s when Petra came to me with the idea for Mijn Buuf,” tells Nicole. “Which was literally what it is today: empowering isolated women by getting them to work with their hands, side by side, in a safe place at the heart of society.” Petra adds: “When you work with your hands, you clear your head. Making something isn’t an end goal, it’s a way to discover talents.” A good idea, Nicole agreed, though she did say: ‘We wíll perform market research!’ And they did: Nicole searched for existing initiatives and looked up the statistics of migrants in The Hague. “During the fall of 2017 we cycled through the entire city,” Petra tells how they literally explored the market together. “We visited tons of places and saw the activities present for women. We noticed a lot of the initiatives were unaware of each other so we exchanged flyers.” Petra and Nicole were met with resistance as well: “We’ve had replies such as ‘it’s nice that you want to keep yourself occupied, but these women should become independent from social benefits as soon as possible’. We would curse the people who didn’t believe in our idea and visit a bar,” Nicole tells, laughing.
Stepping stone from kitchen counter to society
They would not be taken aback. However, they did set an ultimatum for themselves: “If we couldn’t find a place to start before the summer of 2018, we would quit,” Petra says. Their funding application for sewing machines and materials was approved and through crowdfunding they were able to rent a space at SoZa, the former Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment. “We’re now at a location where most women have to travel to by tram or bicycle,” Nicole indicates. “We feel this is important, because with a nearby activity, you won’t really leave your existing social circle. In this way, we’re an actual stepping stone from kitchen counter to society!” Mijn Buuf further distinguishes itself by giving the women time to recover and explore what they’re good at and what they like to do. “They often have to deal with traumas and experience high amounts of stress,” Petra explains. “We give each woman the opportunity to develop at her own pace.” By now, 34 women go to Mijn Buuf at least twice a week. Petra is present daily as a volunteer, supported by someone else each day, including Nicole.
Folding bag for Lesbos
Mijn Buuf likes to be self-sufficient and can now call The Student Hotel – locations in The Hague ánd Berlin -, The National Archive and Exact its customers. These organisations buy the folding bags and pen cases made by the women, which consist mainly of residual material. This all started in 2018, with the folding bags for Lesbos, made from old banners, which were designed by Petra. In co-operation with ‘Movement on the Ground’ the ladies of Mijn Buuf make sure that boat refugees can keep the traveling documents, clothes and hygiene products they receive upon arrival, safely with them. “Helping others in this manner makes our women feel good as well,” Nicole says. “At first, they made everything themselves, but now they instruct teams who make the bags as a company outing.” The revenue from these events and the sales of folding bags and other products are spent on rent, materials and sewing machines for Mijn Buuf. And on the women’s travelling expenses. “Those who come here at least twice a week receive a public transport card, which makes it easier for them to just go out on the other days as well,” Petra tells. Mijn Buuf’s ‘business’ hours are Monday through Thursday. “On Fridays we provide trainings and courses for the women,” Petra indicates, “for example in language and empowerment.”
Safe haven ánd breeding ground
The women aren’t obligated to do anything,” Nicole emphasizes, “except to be on time, call when they can’t make it or will arrive later, and tidy their work space when they’re done. We also feel it’s important they tell us if they’re not comfortable doing something or what, on the other hand, they would enjoy doing. And we ask them to speak Dutch. Often they’re reluctant because at home their children laugh at them over it.” Petra always tells the women: “I’m not going to force you to work or do complicated things, but if your husband can’t take care of you anymore…” That is the reason Mijn Buuf has started an employment agency, to help guide the women to internships and work. Nicole and Petra use their own network to this cause. Mijn Buuf is both a breeding ground for talent and a safe haven: “We discuss everything with these women,” Petra elaborates, “relationships and sex, periods and headscarfs.” Deeper subjects such as abuse appear as well. “It’s nice to blow off steam with each other, after a conversation like that,” Petra and Nicole both share. “We’re often crying our eyes out, here, but we have moments of intense laughter with each other as well.” “These women’s stories help put your own stress into perspective,” Nicole indicates. What does Petra do to relax? “When everyone has left, I stay here by myself for an hour, just fiddling.”
CORONA-UPDATE OCTOBER 2020
“Some of our participants spent literally eight weeks inside, during Corona lockdown this spring,” Petra Prent recounts, sitting at the large, round table in one of the rooms of Mijn Buuf’s new workshop. “For some, it felt like ‘being back behind the curtains’, they were afraid to go out again. Others are even more motivated to participate. They needed to help their children with school work at home, which was challenging for them.” During lockdown, Mijn Buuf kept in touch with the women as best as they could. “Every Wednesday morning we’d drink a virtual cup of coffee. We also started a buddy network with the volunteers. When families of our participants required help with anything, we’d help. Be it grocery shopping, a food bank application, handing out children’s books, or a sewing machine to have something to do at home.” As soon as they were able, and it became a requirement for public transport, Mijn Buuf paired up women to make facial masks: “For this, we use the polyester of old flags, which we line with new cotton and a filter. For two weeks we hammered the corona rules in their heads,” Petra laughs. “When the rules started sticking, we kept adding women to the groups. We work in shifts so that, should someone get infected, our entire work force wouldn’t have to stay home.” The production of accessories made from recycled materials has been resumed as well. In addition, Mijn Buuf started new collaborations with local language institutions and a debt relief organization.
Interview and text: Lisa Koolhoven