At first glance, it looks like Elizabeth Elghoche could be shopping at any grocery store. The newly-arrived refugee from Nigeria is pushing a grocery cart, browsing shelves filled with cookies, bread, crackers and cheese.
But the Welcome Hall Market is anything but typical.
The products here are free. If they weren’t, people like Elgoche likely wouldn’t eat.
Arriving only three months ago, she fled Nigeria with her daughter because she was frightened her daughter would suffer female genital mutilation.
She left behind a successful career, and is now penniless, dependent on the government for help.
“If I couldn’t shop here I wonder where I would get my food from,” she said. “Life is tough. Without groceries it would be much tougher.”
The Welcome Hall Mission opened its market in Saint-Henri last summer. The concept is unique in Montreal.
Families in need “shop” in the market, choosing what they want, rather than getting a food-bank basket.
“The difference is choice,” said Sam Watts, the Mission’s CEO. “People come in and they choose what they want. They don’t have to take something we hand to them, and that elevates the dignity factor.”
The concept has proved overwhelmingly popular, with 3,000 users each week.
Many of those clients come from across the island, making it tough to carry six or seven grocery bags home on public transit.
“Right now people who live in the northeast corner of Montreal have to come by metro and bus. It takes 90 minutes and we don’t think that is dignified,” said Watts. “We think its important to get served in their neighborhood.”
The mission has decided to open a second location in Montreal North this summer. It acquired a building from the Saint-Vincent-de-Paul Society in Montreal North.
“This is a huge thing. We have over 200,000 Montrealers who have to choose every day, ‘do I pay the rent or do I feed my children?’ To give them an opportunity to come to a place where they feel valuable and normal, to us that is a very big thing.”
Getting the market running each day is an enormous task, requiring 70 volunteers. All the food comes from grocery stores.
The mission is confident it will find volunteers for the new location.
They already have one in Elghoche.
“I said OK let me volunteer my services. I don’t have money to give, but I have time.”
Organizers say people like Elghoche prove this market is about much more than just food, it’s about helping make life a little easier for people whose lives are anything but.