Making Soup with Sex Trafficking Survivors in Amsterdam’s Red Light District
Dignita is an Amsterdam restaurant that runs culinary training programs to rehabilitate those forced into the Dutch sex industry. “We have a great time here, we already start laughing when we walk in,” says trainee Inès.
"When we gave the women their certificates, they were crying and wanted to have them in a frame," says Toos Heemskerk-Shep. "It's just a piece of paper but the achievement makes the survivors feel like they're worth something, which is exactly what's taken away by trafficking. The dignity was really stolen from these people—you're not really a person, you're a product."
Heemskerk-Shep is director of the Netherlands branch of Not For Sale, a global organisation that works to end human trafficking. She runs a series of culinary training programmes in Amsterdam aiming to rehabilitate those forced into sex work in the city's Red Light District. When trainees finish the four-week course in cooking, hospitality, and kitchen hygiene, they receive a certificate.
I meet Heemskerk-Shep in Dignita, the restaurant Not For Sale runs to provide real kitchen experience for its trainees. Alongside the bright vases of flowers and distressed wooden floorboards, I notice a number of diamond-shaped ornaments.
"We chose these diamonds because that's how we see the girls who come through here," Heemskerk-Shep tells me over a freshly made cup of mint tea. "They're rough around the edges at first but once you start to work on them, they really shine."
We walk through to the kitchen to meet some of the trainees. A huge vat of Hungarian chicken soup simmers on the stove while four women in chef whites clean the worktops.
"This recipe is from my hometown," says Anna*, who came to Dignita after being forced to work in the Amsterdam sex trade for four years. She tells me that she was coerced into leaving Hungary aged 18 by a man who promised a well paid hotel job in the Netherlands. When she arrived, her passport was taken and the man threatened to kill her child (at the time living back in Hungary with a friend) if she tried to leave.
Soup ready and warm bread placed on the large communal table, I sit down with Heemskerk-Shep, Anna, and the other trainees to eat. Heemskerk-Shep stresses the importance of sharing meals in this way, explaining it helps develop a familial bond between those taking the course.
Another trainee, Renata*, soon joins us at the table.
"The soup is nice," she says. "I've never really been a good at cook but I wanted to join the programme because I was getting depressed."
Renata is from Poland and was forced to move to Amsterdam by a violent man who posed as a potential boyfriend. She became a prostitute when he demanded money from her, only managing to escape to a safe house after two years of work.
No one is sure how many of women like Anna and Renata working in Amsterdam's Red Light District, famous for its floodlit windows occupied by scantily clad women, have been trafficked. Of course, not all sex workers should be branded as victims, but some studies show that anywhere between 10 and 90 percent of Dutch sex workers have been forced into the trade. Given that there are around 4,000 women working in the sex industry in the Netherlands, which legalised prostitution in 2000 as a way to increase regulation and protect workers, that's at least 400 women forced to perform sexual acts against their will.
The traffickers themselves often work in organised criminal networks, luring vulnerable young women from Eastern Europe—as well as less politically stable African countries like Nigeria and Sierra Leone—with the promise of hotel or restaurant work in the Netherlands, threatening violence should they attempt to leave.
Not For Sale employs both male and female kitchen staff to help run Dignita alongside the trainees, which Heemskerk-Shep says is an important part of their rehabilitation.
"We're trying to help them get a normal work life, a normal community," she explains. "Trauma should be dealt with by psychologists and humanity by just normal people."
The training itself is accessible even for those with limited kitchen skills, beginning with calming, repetitive tasks like chopping or stirring.
Inès*, another trainee from Algeria, tells me that working at Dignita has made her and other survivors of trafficking feel happy again.
"We have a great time here, we already start laughing when we walk in," she says.
The Dutch government gives women found to have been trafficked to the country three months in a shelter, as well as access to healthcare. During that time, they have the option of pressing charges against their trafficker. Ninety percent of human trafficking cases, however, are dismissed due to lack of evidence.
"They have shelter and health insurance, and that's about it," says Claire, the former Netherlands programme director at Not For Sale. "How are they going to get a job? So I'd say that's where we come in. We make them more resilient and less vulnerable."
Not For Sale offers survivors of trafficking further training with a three-month hospitality module following the four-week course at Dignita. Developed with a Dutch technical college, they learn further food preparation and kitchen hygiene skills, and receive a recognised hospitality certificate at the end.
Later on in that evening, I join Not For Sale volunteers as they head to the De Wallen neighbourhood that houses Amsterdam's Red Light District. We deliver soup and salad made by the trainees to those working in the windows.
I speak to Ben*, a 32-year-old from Wales making his second visit to the women in the windows.
"I visited several of the ladies working in the windows when I went on a mate's stag a few months ago," he says. "They all seemed eager to please, to be honest, I didn't get the impression they were trafficked or didn't want to be there."
It's an impression Heemskerk-Shep says may not show the full picture. She tells me she questioned a cross-section of women working in the Red Light District, finding that 92 percent said they would stop tomorrow if they had other options.
Not For Sale could be that option. In the past year, the Netherlands branch has helped four formerly trafficked women into paid employment. The biggest achievement, however, is the improved self-confidence of trainees.
"I would like to learn how to make European food," says Aditya, a 30-year-old trainee. "I plan to have a little cafe in Indonesia—a small cafe so people can try my food—and open my own small business."
Later, I'm invited to the Not For Sale ceremony awarding trainees their catering certificates. The women are invited on stage to collect their qualifications and th crowd applauds for each one. Vera, who completed her Dignita training after being trafficked to the Netherlands as a housekeeper, takes to the microphone to talk about her experience.
"We were like flowers without water before the training started. I wasn't doing anything, in fact I was waiting to die," she says. "Now, everything has changed. I have hopes for the future, I know what I can do and that anything is possible."
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
All photos by Julia Shirley-Quirk.