Last year I decided to donate the royalties from The Absent Prince: In search of missing men to a charity and I asked my friend, Kate for advice. Her son, Arthur is an aid worker and had recently returned from the Calais refugee camps. Having worked with Alice Corrigan in Serbia, Arthur immediately recommended The Free Shop Lebanon. Alice does incredible work. The funds will go where they are most needed and not be eaten up in bureaucracy and pay cheques as they often are in larger, more established charities. The Free Shop Lebanon also employs local people, which is the ideal way to make it sustainable in the long term.
During the pandemic, I wrote I Have Come to Say You Goodbye, A History of The School of English Studies, Folkestone, 1959 – 2017 and had 100 copies printed to gift to former teachers, staff, students and host families. With Alice’s help, I also set up a Crowdfunding page and we raised over fifteen hundred pounds for The Free Shop Lebanon. Some people expressed an interest in making an annual donation. Others thanked me for drawing their attention to a charity they might never have discovered on their own. I decided to interview Alice, The Free Shop’s founder and Khaled, who now manages the project in Bar Elias in the Bekaa Valley.
Alice Corrigan is 28 years old, the youngest of four children from rural Lincolnshire. After university she taught English in Japan before moving to Serbia where she volunteered for a charity. When her money ran out, she moved to Lebanon and took a job working for an NGO in the Bekaa Valley. In March 2020, she returned to England on one of the last planes out of Beirut before Lebanon went into lockdown. She flew back as soon as the airport re-opened in July.
I would love to create systemic change, Alice said, to make the world equal for everyone but I recognise that this needs to be done in community and over a long period of time, hundreds of years, even. But there are things we can do as individuals, small things that can make a big difference in a person’s life. Providing someone with new underwear for example or giving them something useful for their kitchen.
The Free Shop began as a pop up and was trialled in late 2020. Khaled was a volunteer on the project and Alice was so impressed by how hard he worked and how well he engaged with the refugee families that she asked him to join her in providing physical aid to refugees. According to the UN Refugee Agency, there are more than 340,000 registered Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley. Most live in tented settlements in remote locations with limited access to public transport, relying on mobile trucks to fill their water tanks. Some families have been living in these conditions for six years. Similar to those currently fleeing the war in Ukraine, many refugees choose to remain close to the Syrian border in the hope of one day returning home. Some have crossed back into Syria only to discover that their homes have been destroyed as a result of the ongoing war.
Refugees are permitted to work in agriculture, construction and waste management. Many work in the fields but pay is poor and the work is seasonal. The focus now is on providing a better life for the next generation. Syrian children have the right to go to school in Lebanon but many families cannot afford the 10c one way bus journey between the settlement and the school. The Free Shop Lebanon is looking to contract 20 minibuses to ferry them for free.
Once registered with The Free Shop, each family member receives three free tokens which can be used in the shop in exchange for clothes, shoes, children’s toys, nappies, menstrual pads, reusable water bottles, blankets and small household items. It costs the charity approximately £2 for each person who visits the shop so a donation of just £10 enables five people to go home with three items each.
The Free Shop Lebanon was registered on November 11th, 2020 and served 12,000 people in its first year.
Those who run The Free Shop are all Syrian nationals. Khaled, the team manager, is himself a Syrian refugee with a Masters in Economics. He grew up 40km south of Damascus with his parents and two siblings. Khaled was arrested on three separate occasions, jailed without charge and tortured during his time in prison. Eventually he left his family and crossed the border into Lebanon. On the day he and I spoke on the phone, his brother had just arrived for a 10 day visit. It was the first time they had seen each other in 4 years.
Khaled volunteered with an NGO and worked as a tuk-tuk driver before meeting Alice. I love my work with The Free Shop, he told me and when I see the smiling faces of mothers and children, I feel very happy. I know that what I am doing is good. He stressed the importance of offering people choice and giving them time to make that choice. Refugees are often just handed a bag of clothes whereas at The Free Shop, people can choose colours and styles from racks and shelves. They can ask for something in a different size or another colour. Families are referred to as customers not beneficiaries because that is how we treat people inside our store, regardless of nationality. We are here to serve them. We help families find that perfect baby dress or the right sized kids’ shoes. As Khaled so succinctly described it: A woman can say to herself – I live in a refugee camp but, today I am just a normal person, going shopping.
All in all, our work is a simple activity, says Alice, for which not much praise need be given: we are proud of it enough ourselves. When a mother cries in the shop because she has just realised that she can give her children clothes they need but cannot afford, it stays with us. We know that families in Lebanon are living in poverty (the rate has doubled from 42% in 2019 to 82% in 2021) and we will work to reduce that poverty, family by family for as long as action is needed and our presence is wanted.
I asked Alice and Khaled about their dreams for the future. A Free Mall, they said, where we can provide appliances, heating fuel, tarpaulins, rugs, furniture and whatever else people might need.
Today, perhaps more than ever before, charities are in desperate need of support and funding. I can feel both overwhelmed and guilty at my inability to choose among them. I am grateful to Arthur for his recommendation, grateful for my conversations with Alice and Khaled and grateful to all those who donated to The Free Shop Lebanon.
If you would like to know more about the work they do and/or make a donation, please follow the link below. There are a number of collection points across the UK. Shoes and children’s clothes are especially appreciated. Thank you.
https://www.thefreeshoplb.org/ or follow them on Instagram (@thefreeshoplebanon)