THE (NON-FIGURATIVE) BAG OF KAATJE NOLEN

As a privileged woman, and I think I am not alone in this, I’ve often thought about helping people in need, but never really knew how to put those thought into action. Kaatje is not that woman. In her bag she carries, next to the usual phone and lip-balm, hopes and dreams. Not just hers, but above all for others. When her friend turned associate turned best friend Steffi de Pous started collecting baby-carriers to help refugee-parents on Lesvos after seeing the devastating image of 3 year old Alan from Syria washed up ashore, she could simply not just stand by. The second time Steffi went to the island I volunteered to come with her, amongst others. Because We Carry, the foundation of which Kaatje says “is sometimes bigger than we think” was born. “We distributed food from a van to mostly Afghan people who camped out on a field we called the Olive Grove. This was before there was an actual camp.”

After 2,5 years of volunteering Kaatje officially joined the foundation. Next to her work for Because We Carry Kaatje set up a solo-project: A bi-annual auction on Instagram to collect money for the foundation called The True Art Of Giving. Auction number 7 had just finished when we meet at her home: A houseboat on the edge of Amsterdam, which despite the industrial and grey surroundings feels warm and cosy. “It is quite a job to do”, she explains, “I do everything manually on my phone, and every post requires a lot of actions. It leaves me exhausted. But I’m very proud of the platform and the concept. From hair ties to weekend trips, it generated so much money! That is amazing.” Her eyes flare up when she speaks of it, the adrenaline of the auction clearly still rushing through her veins.

Kaatje herself, who grew up in the middle of the famous Jordaan in Amsterdam, has three children with her husband Thijs: Nina (9), Boris (7) and Wolf (3). Last year they went to Lesvos with the entire family. “On a vacation, but also to show them what life is like in the camps. I think it’s important for them to see the other side of the coin.”, she explains. “I went to work at the camps every other day, and sometimes they joined me. On Kare Tepe, one of the smaller camps where the organisation is very well taken care off, they helped to distribute the breakfast which we do there every morning. Nina was on the ground painting rocks with some of the children, Boris played soccer with the boys and Wolf was running around on the little playground.”

This year Kaatje went to Lesvos alone with her children, initially for a vacation. “It wasn’t my intention to bring them to the camps again. But after a week of eating ice-cream on the beach I couldn’t resist. We drove past the camp every day and I simply could not close my eyes to it.” Her work for Because We Carry and True Art Of Giving got so intertwined into their family, they barely ever ask questions about it, Kaatje answers when I ask her how she thinks it affects her children. “Boris is very sensitive and I notice how he absorbs everything, but he never verbalises it. Sometimes, and I know this is not very pedagogically justified, I remind them of the children in Moria when they don’t want to finish their plate.”, she laughs shyly. “But it really is part of their lives. They are the ones to come up with the idea to bring soccer balls to Lesvos for the kids to play with. Or they collect money on school. Nina once brought enough money home to buy one and a half stroller. And the other day she came home with 9 euros cash intended for Because We Carry. I think thats fantastic!”, she continues.

She and her husband, who is a contractor and restaurant owner, of which the latter Covid19 unfortunately had put an end to, met in Surinam where they both worked at a restaurant; Kaatje as a company director and Thijs as a manager. “It was love at first sight.” Kaatje says. “Despite of me getting the job he initially wanted.”, she laughs, referring to her job ranking above his at the restaurant. Now, 16 years and 3 children later, they settled in Amsterdam, both working full-time, sometimes more. Fortunately, her work for Because We Carry and True Art Of Giving is easy to combine with being a parent. “I pick them up from school every day. At the schoolyard, to see them run out of the door so happy and free, is my favourite moment of the day.” But her work does not leave her unaffected, and today she is happy to have an extra hour to herself, taking a long walk and listening to her favourite podcast: Oprahs Supersoul Conversations, before heading to school. Because bags tend to get heavy sometimes, especially when they are filled with hopes and dreams.

While writing this heavy rain flooded the emergency-tents that were put up after a fire destroyed Moria in its entirety past September. This was just one of many showers that will cross the island in the months to come. Please donate here if you can.