As each day passes, there are more refugees than ever before. The average refugee inhabits a camp for more than 17 years, living in challenging conditions and often with little provision of resources. Forced to flee their home countries, escaping war and persecution, many of the refugees of today are under the age of 18. They embark upon a new life in a new country, with hopes of living, rather than just surviving.

In fleeing home, refugees leave their families, friends and belongings behind. Many will never be afforded the opportunity to return home. Their futures will be decided upon by governments, deliberated over for years before the possibility of settling in a prospective ‘home’ country. Though resilient and brave, refugees find opportunities for education and employment scarce, contributing to the growing concern that the talent and potential of millions of young people are being wasted.

The work of charities in providing basic necessities is vital, but their focus rarely shifts from that of survival. Refugee lives are thought of as separate from activities that are fun and enriching. KLABU, a Dutch social enterprise, sees an opportunity to add value to the lives of refugees; to reignite their spirit through the power of sport. A ‘social start-up with a scalable business model to power positive change’, KLABU was founded by Jan van Hövell and a team of people from Amsterdam and Kenya. KLABU, meaning ‘club’ in Swahili, was formed with the belief and experience that sport positively impacts young refugee lives allowing them to be rebuilt far from home.

Their mission is to build sports clubs in refugee camps to support the unbeatable spirit of refugees. Within camps, settlements and cities, their sports clubs ‘provide access to sporting equipment and clothing on the basis of a library system’. A simple and sustainable system that could be replicated globally, the clubhouse is a community hub, owned and managed by refugee and host communities. As an outside entity, KLABU establishes connections with local partners and community leaders, ensuring the clubhouse project is owned by local people. Facilitating and fundraising are left to KLABU. In a collaboration between the social enterprise and community figures, local needs are identified, a budget is developed and a plan to bring the clubhouse into practice is realised.

Once the clubhouse is constructed; ‘a bright and inviting place where people come together to meet and play’, people have the opportunity to withdraw sporting equipment and kit. Compared to many sporting initiatives in refugee camps, the clubhouse is not one-off or sporadic. It becomes a permanent fixture of the community, a meeting place for people with no reliance upon external instructors or sponsorship. This long-term solution to providing sporting opportunities creates and nurtures involvement over a sustained period of time.

The bright orange clubhouse of the Kalobeyei settlement is an inviting hub from which sporting equipment is shared and refugees meet and play. Regardless of nationality, age or gender, the tenets of KLABU and of sport promote inclusivity. Not just a library for sporting goods, the KLABU clubhouse also has a stage to encourage the performance of music and dance; a platform that also provides space for community meetings and discussion.

The Kalobeyei camp is located approximately 20 kilometres from Kakuma, the main refugee settlement within the Turkana West District of Kenya. Kalobeyei was established to accommodate the overflow of people from the Kakuma settlement whose maximum population was exceeded, leading to congestion within the camp. Kenya offers stability to the two main refugee-producing countries of East Africa, Somalia and South Sudan. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 24.2 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance; the Kakuma and Kalobeyei Settlements are but two camps that temporarily house refugees and asylum seekers.

As a case study, the first clubhouse within the Kalobeyei Settlement has over 10,000 members from 13 different African countries. This is approximately one-third of the people inhabiting the refugee camp, meaning that each day, hundreds of people come together to partake in sporting activities. The unique kit that is attributed to the Kalobeyei Settlement will eventually be one of many, cementing the unique identity of each clubhouse and host community. The ‘Kalobeyei Spirit’ shirts that symbolise hope, transformation and growth, appear within the FIFA video game franchise, contributing to the expansion of the KLABU brand and the subsequent growth of their clubhouse programme. This allows a greater number of young people to partake in popular local and global sports. The KLABU business model is therefore not reliant upon large, one-off donations or sponsorships, but more so upon the sale of their kits and the identities woven into their fabric. 

Since the conception of KLABU in 2017, the organisation has generated significant support from partners with their innovative model and the strong roots built within the Kalobeyei Refugee Camp with their pilot programme. The first clubhouse was finished in 2019 and despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, remains an important facet of daily life. Over the next 10 years, KLABU is endeavouring to get 500,000 refugees playing sports via 25 clubs across the world. The KLABU approach relies upon proceeds from the sale of KLABU related sporting apparel. With the creation of more kits comes the increased possibility of helping more young refugees gain access to sports and KLABU’s recent kit partnership with the PSG (Paris Saint-Germain) Endowment Fund has further solidified their commitment to refugees. Supported by the UNHCR and set to last for over 3 years, this collaboration featured the widely recognised footballer Neymar, as well as Nadia Nadim, a refugee from Afghanistan that settled in Denmark as a child. It was in a refugee camp in Denmark that Nadia Nadim honed her football skills to become one of the finest football players in the world. Her story of success is unique. 

With many countries, particularly those in the ‘developed world, limiting the number of refugees entering their country, it has often fallen on countries such as Pakistan, Uganda and Bangladesh to host forcibly displaced people. It is in the latter, a country with a population in excess of 160 million people, where the latest proposed clubhouse project will take place. In addition to the traditional clubhouse model, KLABU will be widening their reach with a ‘Mobile Sports Library’, for those that live a greater distance from the clubhouse centre. Beyond providing sporting equipment and training, the vehicle will broadcast live sporting events to people, inspiring a new generation of refugee athletes.

Cox’s Bazaar is a city in Bangladesh that is home to the Kutupalong refugee camp. Since the early 1990s violence against the Rohingya people, a minority ethnic group within Myanmar has caused waves of people to cross the border into Bangladesh, creating the largest refugee camp in the world. At times, thousands of people were crossing the border each day, as the government of Myanmar has denied the Rohingya people their citizenship since 1982. This ethnic cleansing of Rohingya people has made them the ‘most discriminated people in the world’, as 884,000 people, of which more than half are children, have been forced to migrate from their homeland. The Cox’s Bazaar clubhouse will initially provide sporting means to 10,000 Rohingya and host community children and their families. ‘Defined by Spirit’, the motto for the partnership between KLABU and PSG, is a statement of intent by the organisations, as they hope to expand into other parts of the world in the coming years. 

KLABU’s business model empowers refugee people to participate in and develop their communities through the power of sport. In a similar vein, the Chichester-based Nations United football club is providing young refugees with a safe space in which the benefits of sport can be experienced. Through participation in football, young men are able to improve their communication skills, develop important friendships and assimilate into their local communities. KLABU have provided the players with a Kalobeyei kit of their own; the unbreakable spirit of the West Sussex club is exhibited in vibrant colour.


With thanks to Jan Van Hovell and KLABU -

Images from this article were provided by KLABU, more can be seen on their website.


Design & build by In-Col Studio

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