Turn off London’s biggest shopping streets, push past the fashionable crowds filling the narrow streets of Soho, and you’ll come to a small, bright shop on a corner. With its glass walls, young staff and minimalist display, it could be any of pop-up shops that bloom around this part of town. But there’s a difference. The items on display on the white table in the middle of the room include lifejackets and silvery emergency blankets. The staff are unpaid volunteers. Welcome to Choose Love, where you can come in and shop as much as you want, but not take a single thing with you.
“We launched on Black Friday,” says Tom Steadman, head of communications at Help Refugees, which runs the shop. “We wanted to introduce a new way for people to shop, and do something a little bit different this winter.” Help Refugees works in conflict zones where aid agencies have been active for years, such as Iraq and Syria, but it stands out among other aid charities for its focus on Europe. Founded just two years ago, after a group of friends managed to raise £56,000 during the refugee crisis, Help Refugees operates in the Greek islands, Serbia, Italy and Calais. Like many of the senior members of the organisation, Steadman is still in his early twenties.
In the shop, all the items on the table represent a different part of a refugee’s journey. Many visitors to the shop pause at the first item they see – a child’s winter jacket. The dark afternoon I arrive, snowflakes fleetingly appear in the air outside. “It’s the first day of snow in Calais as well,” says Steadman “Children are there with nothing. And on the Greek islands, at the moment you have babies on the floor sleeping with no blankets.” Last winter, according to groups operating on Lesbos, six people died in the camp of Moria, including a five-year-old girl. According to Help Refugees, 50 per cent of arrivals on Greek islands are children.
The child’s winter jacket is the most popular item in the shop, and every time a visitor buys one, the money is directed to buy a child a jacket in Calais, Lesbos or another place of need (if there is a surplus of winter jackets, Help Refugees will redirect the money to other items in the shop). But raising money is only part of the experience of visiting the shop. As we move from one object to another, Steadman keeps up his running commentary.
“The average time people spend in a refugee camp is five years,” he tells me as we reach the next section of the table, which represents the theme of shelter. “Once they have arrived they tend to have an incredibly long and frustrating period of time in limbo.” The items in front of us include a child’s winter boots, a tent and a basic mobile phone to represent phone credit. “For refugees, who have left everything behind, it is the way to speak to their relatives,” says Steadman. “When living in a camp for months, it’s also the only way to access information about asylum claims.”
He points out something so ordinary I hadn’t noticed it – a toothbrush, and some other bathroom items. “In Serbia, across Europe, people have nothing to wash themselves with. There are skin diseases. There is a lot to be said for giving people their dignity.”
While we talk, other volunteers are waiting by the door. Objects spark stories, and stories, Help Refugees hopes, will spark awareness that the refugee crisis is far from over yet, even if Europe’s authorities wish it otherwise. “We’re distributing as much as we did at the peak of the Jungle,” Steadman says, referring to the unofficial Calais refugee camp that was bulldozed this time last year. Some parts of the crisis stem directly from government policy: according to Help Refugees monitors, on average, displaced people in Calais have their belongings taken three times a week.
The shop has a cheerful feel – the Choose Love logo was donated by activist designer Katharine Hamnett and riffs off her original 1980s Choose Life t-shirt, famously sported by George Michael. But in an age of activists occupying spaces, its presence in the shopping district of a shopping capital is also quietly subversive. “This shop is all about bringing the refugee crisis into everyday life of people in the UK,” says Steadman, who believes many Brits simply don’t know what to do about it. Buying a child a pair of boots, though, is a practical and manageable act. “This crisis can seem overwhelming and there are actually really simple ways you can help.”
The final section of the table is dedicated to the future, and contains everything from an Arabic-English dictionary to school stationery. “There is a huge crisis in refugee children not being able to access education,” says Steadman. Then he picks up his favourite item – a key. Valued at £320, it represents one month’s rent and living costs in accommodation outside a refugee camp. “To imagine going through that journey as a family and then arriving, living in a refugee camp for years, and finally being given keys to your own home – it’s an amazing thing.”