This year more than ever I am intolerant of the endless consumer cycle that envelops the city around the holidays. Stores are pulling out all the stops to get customers inside with window displays, expensive light features, and appearances by Santa. Meanwhile, shoppers just overnight express billions of dollars worth of presents from Amazon to vie for the moments when everyone isn’t staring at a screen. My son still has unopened toys from his birthday party, my husband needs a storage space for his media, and I can’t think of anything I need except maybe something to get me through the holidays.
Then I discovered Choose Love, the world’s first pop-up store devoted entirely to shopping for refugees across the globe. How it works is this: you go to the store, online or in person, which is stocked with goods. You choose things you want to buy, and then after your purchase, leave with nothing but love in your heart. The products you bought will then be distributed by the humanitarian aid organization, Help Refugees, and their partners across Europe and the Middle East. Since it was founded in 2015, the organization has helped nearly a million refugees in countries like Greece, Syria, Lebanon and France.
There are options to buy single items or bundles, like a “Mom and Baby” bundle that includes an insulated onesie, a month’s supply of diapers and a hygiene pack for $54 or a “Shelter” bundle consisting of a tent, a sleeping bag, a hygiene pack and a food pack for a family for $80. Or if you are up for it, there is an option to “Buy The Store” where you can purchase one of everything in the entire store, including a month’s rent and food for a family, a donation to women’s safe spaces, tents, books, children’s jackets, and more for $775. You can also get a giftable receipt if you’re in need of something to put under the tree. It comes in the form of a card that you can personalize for the recipient with the faces of refugees on the front.
“We wanted to turn the idea of charity shops on their head,” explained Josie Naughton, the CEO of Help Refugees UK. “In 2017 we threw open the doors to our very first London store, hoping that amidst the nonstop holiday shopping, Londoners would want to give back—instead of snagging gadgets and jeans, they’d consider investing in making a difference. We were in absolute awe of the generosity. Alone we raised approximately £750,000 [over $950,000 USD]; all which went directly to supporting refugees. When the first Choose Love store closed after its crazy one-month stint, we were already itching to not only reopen but expand onto U.S. soil.”
Last year, the store and online platform helped provide refugees with 800,000 nutritious meals, 3,556 nights of accommodation, 25,000 essential winter items for adults and 100,000 essentials for babies and children. This month they opened here on a bustling Soho street, hoping to recreate that London success. In their first week open, they have already raised $75,000.
On my visit to the store, I was struck by how the brick-and-mortar elements really helped bring the refugee experience to life, in a way that is not possible online. On the walls are photographs of families and stories of fleeing war or persecution in countries like Greece. Together with the supplies on display, it helps put an abstract experience into a very human context.
“The design of the shop itself is one of the intrinsic components of Choose Love,” says Naughton. The three tables are labeled Arrival (containing items like an inflatable life vest), Shelter (tents or snow boots), and Future (school bag and supplies, for instance), taking visitors on the journey of a refugee. “The visual layout helps shoppers put themselves in the shoes of a refugee and handpick where and how they’d like to help the displaced,” says Naughton.
Walking through the store, in a down coat and scarf, I felt keenly aware of the people that Help Refugees is trying to keep safe and warm in the coming months. The concept to Choose Love this year helps everyone in need: the displaced families and us, the manic shoppers who need a way to rekindle the real holiday spirit by keeping the excess goods we purchase at bay.
Choose Love, 456 West Broadway, Soho. Open through December 24th, 2018.