ROGERS PARK — Volunteers have run a free store for refugees out of their Rogers Park home for years — but they need to expand to serve Chicago’s booming refugee population.
The store has been in Rogers Park for six years. It inhabits the second floor of a resident’s garage off Farwell Avenue near Ravenswood Avenue, sharing space with the homeowner’s camper and seasonal decorations.
The rest of the garage is filled to the brim with household items that newly arriving refugees need to start their life in Chicago. But the store needs a bigger space to meet its customers’ needs as Chicago’s refugee population grows.
“We have so much to offer, but we’re limited with what we can do because of the space,” said volunteer Christina Varotsis. “To be more effective, we need a space to welcome people and work with them.”
Years Of Service
The free store in Rogers Park is run by Barbara Ryan, who was inspired by a similar free shop her sister, Susan Ryan Nelson, opened in Albany Park. Ryan knew Rogers Park had a large and growing refugee population and thought her sister’s idea would work well in the neighborhood, she said.
“There are a lot of refugees here, and they’d have to take three buses to get” to the Albany Park store, Ryan said. “It made sense to open one here.”
The Rogers Park store got its start in Ryan’s home about six years ago. It quickly outgrew that space.
Ann-Louise Haak and Shelby Hatch stepped in. The couple knew Ryan through a mutual beekeeping hobby, and they’d donated items to Ryan’s store.
The two had previously allowed their two-story garage to be a storage space for the Rogers Park co-op Wild Onion Market. When they learned the Rogers Park free store needed more space, they suggested the shop move in.
“We said, ‘We have this space and you’re welcome to use it,'” Haak said. “We call it the ‘garage of potential.’ … We’re happy to put it to use for the community.”
In the four years since then, the store’s work has grown and it’s maxed out the garage.
One side of the store holds bathroom items and clothes. The clothes are loosely arranged by gender and by children’s age. Coats are hung on racks while the rest is packed on boxes and tubs stacked on top of each other.
The other side of the store has kitchen and dining room equipment, plus toys, appliances, lamps, board games, office supplies and cleaning items. Even the stairway leading up to the store is used to house boots and shoes.
The items are donated from the community and through a social media group called Refugee Community Connection. The group also takes requests for special items, like baby car seats, and seeks donations to buy those items.
The volunteers get to know the shoppers.
During a recent morning, a man explored the jam-packed store, grabbing a teapot and a rolling pin. His household has nine people, including six kids, and they’re newly arrived to Chicago from Afghanistan.
“Bring your wife next time,” Ryan told him. “We’ll be here Sunday.”
‘We Need Much More Space’
The garage doesn’t have heat or air conditioning, making it frigid in the winter and sweltering in the summer. Volunteers work to staff the store about three days a week, and they keep it open as long as they can stand to be in the space, Varotsis said.
“Lack of heat is a major problem,” Varotsis said. “Because we have to put items on top of each other, it’s hard to find things. We need much more space.”
The issues reached a tipping point late last year, when the end of the war in Afghanistan resulted in a wave of refugees settling in Chicago. The city has welcomed more than 2,000 refugees and could see a total of 3,000 through this year, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The influx led to greater demand for the store’s services, volunteers said. Word of mouth has also spread about the store, with refugee agencies and bilingual refugee customers referring people to the shop. The store is focusing solely on Afghan refugees now so it’s not overwhelmed.
“It was always tight,” Ryan said. “But since November, more and more refugees have come in.”
Now, Ryan and her group are seeking a new space for their store.
The volunteers have reached out to ward offices, business groups and landlords — all to no avail, they said. Some churches have offered space but have insisted on trying to convert the store’s customers, Ryan said.
The group would like a semi-private space that can be discreet and help retain its status as for Middle East refugees only, Ryan said. A bathroom and some amenities, like heating and cooling, would also be nice, she said.
“I’d like it to be private,” Ryan said. “A storefront would be nice, but only if there is a dedicated entrance for refugees.”
The store can remain in the garage for as long as needed, though everyone agrees the operation has outgrown the space, Haak and Shelby said. The search for a new space goes on, but the focus remains on meeting the needs of Rogers Park’s newest residents.
“It’s very much a community effort,” Varotsis said. “We’re very proud of how we’re able to wing it.”
To reach out to Ryan and the free refugee store, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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