When I was a kid, I wanted to work for the UN. Instead, I ended up dropping out of UCL, working in pubs in north London and finding my way into the music industry. Eventually I became the personal assistant to the manager of Coldplay. Working with the band, I learned about how to use branding, speak to a community and run a business. It may sound strange, but that was the best possible training for setting up an international refugee charity.
In the summer of 2015, the refugee crisis was all over the news. More than a million people arrived in Europe escaping war and persecution. Families were fleeing for their lives, crammed into boats, and people were living in awful conditions. I felt so outraged and thought: Sharing an article on Facebook just isn’t enough. I have to do something. When I saw that photograph of the little boy lying on the shore in Turkey, it cemented my determination. A couple of my friends and I raised £1,000 so that we could take supplies out to the refugee camps in Calais.
‘It felt like a compulsion: "Something has to be done"’
When we arrived for the first time, there were 5,000 people living in a muddy field: kids without shoes, babies without nappies, and so many unaccompanied children. There was poor access to water and nowhere clean to go to the bathroom. It will stay with me for ever. But people there were incredible: when you met them, they’d smile and invite you into their shelter for a tea.
I had no charity experience at the start, but our naivety was an asset. It was such a shocking situation that it felt like a compulsion: ‘Something has to be done.’ We ended up staying in Calais and worked with lots of grassroots organisations to provide as much support as we could. Help Refugees grew from there.
Now we help with everything from children’s hospitals and search-and-rescue boats to distribution of tents and long-term accommodation. We’re not experts, we’re not doctors, we’re not search-and-rescue people. We work with 150 different organisations in 14 countries, and they all know what’s needed – they just need support.
‘The festive period is all about love for others’
By 2017, the refugee crisis wasn’t in the media so much, but things the ground were unchanged. We needed warm clothes, blankets, tents and tarpaulins for hundreds of thousands of people. So we developed the idea of Choose Love: a rebrand of a charity shop. People come in, buy items we distribute and leave with nothing. Instead, we deliver those items to the people who really need them. We’ve opened a Choose Love shop in central London every year since.
Charity donation can be a bit intangible: the world’s problems can seem so vast, and it’s hard to know what to do. But it’s easy to understand that if a child doesn’t have a coat, you can buy them a coat. The festive period is all about love for others, and the Choose Love shop really embodies that.
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Now meet more inspiring Londoners
If you’ve read our regular ‘My London Story’ feature in the free Time Out London magazine or online, you’ll know that there’s no end of fascinating, inspiring people in this city of ours. From activists to hairdressers, mermaids to hedge-trimmers and aviators to refugees, we’ve met some incredible Londoners this year. Here are a few of the best.