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The Choose Love pop-up shop in London where you can buy gifts for refugees

This pop-up shop in Soho lets you personally buy items you'd like to gift refugees
Inside the Choose Love shop , run by the charity Help Refugees, in London’s Soho (Help Refugees)

It's not often that you go into a shop in one of London’s busiest shopping districts, spend your money and yet leave with nothing. But this pop-up shop wants you to do just that. “Shop your heart out, leave with nothing, feel the love” reads their slogan.  

The Choose Love shop, run by the charity Help Refugees, claims to be the world’s first store where you can personally buy gifts for refugees. It has attracted support from well-known figures including the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn and London mayor, Sadiq Khan.

Nestled in London’s Soho, the store displays several items ranging from nappies, to emergency blankets, to school supplies. It promises that although you won’t be able to take anything home, the items you purchase will be given to someone who truly needs it.

The Help Refugees Charity

Help Refugees says that this is a new concept. “We wanted to do something a little bit different,” says Tom Steadman, the charity’s head of communications, “to engage people and just make sure they were connected to the things that people really needed this winter.”

It was born as an idea by a group of British friends, who in 2015 wanted to take a van full of donations over to Calais in France, where a refugee and migrant encampment had formed.

Two men look over tents and makeshift homes in the refugee and migrant encampments in Calais known as the ‘Calais Jungle’ (Photo by Rob Pinney/Help Refugees)
Help Refugees’ Co-Director, Philli Boyle, told MEE that when the group arrived at the camp, they saw the extent of the help that was needed. “We realised that there was actually no one providing for the people's most basic needs apart from a couple of groups of really dedicated local individuals” Boyle said.

By seeing the items in the shop it's just an instant reminder that this is still happening

- Ellie Bootman, volunteer

The group’s pledge of £1,000 in donations turned to £56,000 in the matter of a week, and soon after, Help Refugees were taking 7,000 physical donations to the camp everyday.

They were providing everything from food to shelter to internet services helping families connect. “Since then, the Choose Love movement has just snowballed,” Steadman tells MEE. The charity now works in 10 countries across Europe and the Middle East.

Inside the pop-up shop

Large golden letters spelling out ‘Choose Love’ entice you into the bright, white-walled, minimalistic shop. Once inside you’re greeted by smiling volunteers donning Choose Love slogan t-shirts and jumpers. They welcome you warmly and explain the concept of the store.

Ellie Bootman, a 19-year-old volunteer, explains: “We set out the store into three sections: arrival, shelter and future. It alludes to the journey of the refugee.” Each station is clearly marked and numbered.

Arrival

The ‘arrival’ station greets you first. Displayed on the neat shelves and racks are items the charity says refugees need as soon as they arrive on the shores of Europe or elsewhere.

The ‘Arrival’ section of the store displays life jackets, children’s coats, hot meals and warm blankets (MEE/ Arij Limam)
You immediately notice the bright orange life jackets hanging on the rack.

I think it's a really great opportunity for us to spend our money in a better way, especially by donating on someone’s behalf

- Jack, customer

They symbolise the search and rescue teams that the charity supports off the coast of Lesbos, which sees large numbers of refugees who’ve risked their lives crossing the perilous Mediterranean. Help Refugees say they’ve saved over 6,000 people’s lives over the past three years.

Other items in this section include a child’s coat, a warm blanket, hot food and a snug pack with a hat, gloves, socks and a scarf. The items are mostly meant to help refugees through winter, as the charity says their needs drastically increase as the weather gets colder and the conditions deteriorate.

Shelter

Station two is ‘shelter’, presented using square shelves at the far end of the store. Help Refugees says this is the stage where they provide some humanity. Items here are meant to relieve some of the problems facing refugees in camps that are said to be in “filthy, freezing and unsecured conditions.

The ‘Shelter’ section of the store includes babygrows, nappies and a hygiene kit (MEE/ Arij Limam)

Items include tents, sleeping bags, lighting and power, babygrows, nappies, vegetables, rice and a hygiene kit. Steadman says these items often garner shocked reactions from customers.

“We have people coming into the store and you tell them about toothbrushes and the razors that people use to shave because they want to look presentable and there's this really emotive reaction when you're trying to sell them things that are that simple,” Steadman explains.

Future

The final station is ‘future’, aimed at helping refugees in the long term. Many of the items here are not tangible as they are meant to support refugees trying to start their lives over again.

Here you can buy medical care, mental health support, legal services, women’s support, school bags and supplies, accomodation, phones and top-up. Women’s support provides safe spaces for women and girls to access essential services and learn new skills. Phones and top-up help the refugees connect with family and friends they’ve been separated from.

The refugee crisis

The store has garnered a lot of reaction from the public, not least for the cause that it supports.

“I walked past a very unpopular person on the street who's very anti-refugees. Her name's Katie Hopkins. And I was prompted in my memory to think today's the day I have to come and so on behalf of her I have bought some things,” Emily, a 35-year-old from London, told MEE

British media personality, Katie Hopkins, caused widespread anger in 2015 after she penned a column for The Sun newspaper with the headline: ‘Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants.’ In the piece, she had also likened migrants to ‘cockroaches’.  


Syrian refugees arrive on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey on a inflatable dinghy on 11 September 2015 (AFP)
The refugee crisis hit headlines worldwide in 2015, as refugee figures had surpassed their highest since World War Two. Over a million refugees reached Europe illegally that year, with thousands dying or missing at sea.

Up to half of the refugees and migrants were said to be from Syria. Their fleeing was a result of the civil war that had started in 2011, after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used force to quash anti-government protests in the country inspired by the so-called Arab Spring. There are now up to 5.6 million Syrian refugees in camps across the Middle East and Europe, while 13.1 million Syrians are still in need of humanitarian assistance inside the country.

It really upsets me, all this anti-refugee rhetoric. And then seeing these life-jackets and babygrows. They are clearly in need. I just want to do what I can to help them

- Customer

Help Refugees say that because the refugee crisis is no longer dominating media headlines as it previously was, this makes initiatives like the Choose Love shop vital. “By seeing the items in the shop it's just an instant reminder that this is still happening,” Bootman says.  “Things such as seeing a child's coat, it’s like there are really children suffering out there, and it definitely brings it to reality for a lot more people.”

A customer in the Choose Love store, who asked not to be named, was wiping away tears as he told MEE, “It really upsets me, all this anti-refugee rhetoric. And then seeing these life-jackets and babygrows. They are clearly in need. I just want to do what I can to help them.”

A message of hope

Shoppers mill into the store and are promised to leave feeling good. Jack, one of the shoppers, told MEE, “You can definitely see people getting into the Christmas spirit around here. I think all too much of the time that means commercialism and people just spending money on themselves. So I think it's a really great opportunity for us to spend our money in a better way, especially by donating on someone’s behalf.”


Shoppers in the busy Choose Love store (Help Refugees)
The Choose Love pop-up shop opens for one month during the year, and is now running for the second year. £750,000 was raised by the store in 2017.

Help Refugees says that among other things, this amount helped fund 2,930 pairs of shoes, 4,900 blankets, 6,000 warm coats, 70,000 nappies and 800,000 hot meals. The charity hopes that donations this year will surpass last year’s amount in order for them to continue supporting groups responding to the ongoing needs of refugees.

Due to the success of the first store, Help Refugees has also opened a Choose Love pop-up shop across the pond in the bustling US city of New York.

The London Choose Love store will be open until the 31st of December 2018 at 30-32 Foubert’s Place just off Carnaby Street.