A free store for refugees has not had a garage at Rogers Park for 4 years. He now needs a bigger space

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ROGERS PARK — Volunteers have run a free refugee store out of their home in Rogers Park for years — but they need to expand to serve Chicago’s burgeoning refugee population.

The store has been in Rogers Park for six years. He lives on the second floor of a resident’s garage on Farwell Avenue near Ravenswood Avenue, sharing the space with the owner’s motorhome and seasonal decorations.

The rest of the garage is filled to the brim with household items the newly arrived refugees need to start their lives in Chicago. But the store needs more space to meet the needs of its customers as Chicago’s refugee population grows.

“We have so much to offer, but we are limited in what we can do because of space,” said volunteer Christina Varotsis. “To be more effective, we need a space to welcome people and work with them.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Customers shop for clothes at a free refugee store in Rogers Park on March 9, 2022.

years of service

The Rogers Park Free Shop is run by Barbara Ryan, who was inspired by a similar free shop that 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 would have to take three buses to get” to the store in Albany Park, Ryan said. “It made sense to open one here.”

The Rogers Park store got its start in Ryan’s house about six years ago. He quickly outgrew that space.

Ann-Louise Haak and Shelby Hatch intervened. The couple knew Ryan from a shared hobby of beekeeping, and they had donated items to Ryan’s store.

The pair had previously licensed their two-story garage to be used as storage space for Rogers Park’s Wild Onion Market co-op. When they learned that the free store in Rogers Park needed more space, they suggested the store move in.

“We said, ‘We have this space and you are welcome to use it,'” Haak said. “We call it the ‘potential garage’. … We are happy to put it to good use for the community.

Over the next four years, the store’s work increased and the garage reached its peak.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Clothes and linens at a free store for Afghan refugees in Rogers Park on March 9, 2022.

One side of the store contains toiletries and clothing. The clothes are classified by sex and age of the children. Coats hang on racks while the rest are packed on boxes and bins stacked on top of each other.

The other side of the store features kitchen and dining equipment, as well as toys, appliances, lamps, board games, office supplies, and cleaning supplies. Even the staircase leading to the store is used to house boots and shoes.

Items are donated by the community and through a social media group called Refugee Community Connection. The group also takes requests for special items, like infant car seats, and solicits donations to purchase those items.

The volunteers get to know the buyers.

On a recent morning, a man explored the crowded store, grabbing a teapot and a rolling pin. Her family is nine, including six children, and they recently arrived in Chicago from Afghanistan.

“Bring your wife next time,” Ryan told her. “We will be there on Sunday.

“We need a lot more space”

The garage has no heating or air conditioning, making it freezing in the winter and stuffy in the summer. Volunteers work for store staff about three days a week, and they keep it open for as long as they can bear to be in the space, Varotsis said.

“Lack of heat is a major issue,” Varotsis said. “Because we have to put things on top of each other, it’s hard to find things. We need a lot more space.

The problems came to a head late last year, when the end of the war in Afghanistan brought a wave of refugees to Chicago. The city has taken in more than 2,000 refugees and could take in a total of 3,000 this year, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The influx has led to greater demand for the store’s services, volunteers said. Word of mouth also spread through the store, with refugee aid agencies and bilingual refugee customers referring people to the store. The store now only focuses on Afghan refugees, so it’s not overwhelmed.

“It was always tight,” Ryan said. “But since November, more and more refugees have arrived.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Christina Varotsis helps customers choose a sweater to take home at a free store for Afghan refugees in Rogers Park on March 9, 2022.

Now Ryan and his group are looking for a new space for their store.

Volunteers reached out to neighborhood offices, business groups and landlords – to no avail, they said. Some churches offered space but insisted on trying to convert store customers, Ryan said.

The group would like a semi-private space that can be discreet and help maintain their status as Middle Eastern refugees only, Ryan said. A bathroom and some amenities, like heating and air conditioning, would also be nice, she said.

“I wish it was private,” Ryan said. “A window would be nice, but only if there is a dedicated entrance for refugees.”

The store can stay in the garage for as long as needed, although everyone agrees the space has gotten too big, Haak and Shelby said. The search for a new space continues, but the focus remains on meeting the needs of new residents of Rogers Park.

“It’s really a community effort,” Varotsis said. “We are very proud of the way we are able to ride it.”

To contact Ryan and the Free Refugee Store, email [email protected]

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A customer carries items at a free store for Afghan refugees in Rogers Park on March 9, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Kitchen supplies at a free store for Afghan refugees in Rogers Park on March 9, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Mugs at a free store for Afghan refugees in Rogers Park on March 9, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Kitchen supplies at a free store for Afghan refugees in Rogers Park on March 9, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Coats hang ready for distribution at a free store for Afghan refugees in Rogers Park on March 9, 2022.

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