L.A. Pop-Up Turns Holiday Shopping Into Donations for Refugees

2 min
The Choose Love pop-up offers different spaces to select gifts for refugees. (Molly Peterson/KQED)

Just around the corner from Melrose Place in Los Angeles, a British charity has opened a pop-up shop to offer a philanthropic twist on holiday shopping in the heart of a ritzy shopping district.

Inside the Choose Love store, shoppers can buy goods — like diapers, tents and winter coats — on behalf of refugees elsewhere.

In essence, the items spread across three tables inside the pop-up are samples of what the nonprofit behind the store, Help Refugees, then delivers to aid groups in Europe, the Middle East and along the U.S.-Mexico border. For  shoppers,  donations go farther here because of low overhead and distribution arrangements with aid groups. Prices in the shop start at $5. To buy absolutely everything in the store as a donation — 27 items valuable to refugees — it'd cost $865.

Help Refugees first opened a small holiday shop in London two years ago and in New York last year. This is its first year in California. The group says they’ve had 45,000 customers across the stores and distributed 1.6 million goods as a result of the holiday sales.

“Our motto is, 'Shop your heart out, and feel the love,'” says co-founder Josie Naughton. “People are being so generous. I feel like there’s a lot of love in Los Angeles.”

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On a damp Sunday afternoon in L.A., a red-haired girl in rain boots and glasses runs into the glass-fronted store. Five-year-old Maxine Smith points out a plush animal to her mother, Learka Bosnak.

“A bunny!” she exclaims.

Five-year-old Maxine Smith came into the Choose Love wanting a present for herself and eventually chose one for a refugee. (Molly Peterson/KQED)

But it's not a toy and Maxine won't get to take the stuffed animal home. In this store, "buying" that bunny means paying for legal services to help reunite refugee families. Those services are symbolized by the bunny.

Bosnak asks Maxine if she knows what a refugee is. “A person that runs away because there’s a giant war there,” she says, with a slight guess in her voice.

Then Maxine sees a phone. “That’s cool,” she says. “I want to do that.”

Shop volunteer Alice Sloman tells Bosnak and her daughter that the phone is a good choice to give to refugees, but one donors infrequently opt for. Sloman says people tend to think of a cell phone as a luxury, when it’s actually a lifeline. A few years ago, an Afghan boy who almost died after crossing from the French port of Calais into England in a poorly ventilated truck texted Help Refugees with the words “no oxygen;” the cell phone saved his life.

“Lots of people do die from suffocation because they’re so desperate to get to the U.K. or any other safe county,” says Sloman. “Without having that mobile phone it’s likely that story could have had a really tragic ending.”

Refugees are increasingly being pushed from home by climate-driven disasters, according to a report from UC Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute. Under those circumstances, they mostly lack legal protections. Other tensions, like those between law enforcement and groups that deliver water to migrants along the U.S. Mexican border, have also risen in the last year.

“We're starting to recognize through things like climate change that it does not discriminate based on which side of the border you're on,” says James Turner, a co-founder of the creative collective, Glimpse, which helped conceive the holiday stores. “Whether it's refugees, whether it's homeless people in this country or whether it's people suffering economic inequality, everyone deserves a certain amount of dignity.”

This pop-up, he says, is an opportunity to turn our consumerist impulses into something that benefits others.

"We need to get off this course that says we need to keep shopping for stuff every year, regardless of whether or not we have enough," he says.

A December opening party at the L.A. store drew celebrities, including actor Chris O’Dowd (whose wife, Dawn O’Porter, co-founded Help Refugees) and late-night host James Corden.

Comedian and TV host Matt Iseman says the shop reminds him of the Bill Murray movie 'Scrooged.' “[Murray] said, 'If you do some good, its going to feel so good you’re going to want that feeling everyday,'” he says. “We all should live by Bill Murray’s wise words.”

Help Refugees doesn’t promise an easy fix for the decades-long crisis. Instead the group is hoping to make humanitarian aid something more people can do more often and easier, by pricing goods from $5 and making it a part of holiday gift giving.

“I can tell this is an organization that is serious,” says shopper Shawnta Valdes, who bought the “bundle of warmth” package: firewood, blankets, hot food and warm clothes like gloves and a hat. She says a picture of a young girl wrapped in a foil blanket moved her to do it.

“$55 felt do-able and felt equal to what I might spend on myself for pleasure,” says Valdes. “I like to think I would at least treat someone else as nice as I might treat myself.”

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