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It’s not Nike or Adidas, but this cool sportswear is making life in refugee camps better

Klabu means “club” in Swahili, and the Klabu Foundation is getting affordable and accessible sports equipment to the world’s biggest refugee camps.

It’s not Nike or Adidas, but this cool sportswear is making life in refugee camps better

Soccer shirts are no longer just for playing the game. It only takes a quick look at how Nike and Adidas celebrated their Women’s World Cup shirts (not to mention the record-breaking sales), or how global teams like Real Madrid, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain, and many more roll out their new kits every season, to see that it resembles a streetwear fashion show as much as sports news. For those unfamiliar, we are in peak kit launch season right now, ahead of all the major European leagues kicking off the new season over the next month.

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But one of the coolest kits out of Europe doesn’t belong to a major professional club at all. Amsterdam-based Klabu Foundation has been hyping its home and away kits for the Kalobeyei Spirit with an entirely different goal in mind.

There are nearly 30 million refugees in the world, and more than half of them are under the age of 18. One of the largest refugee settlement camps in the world is the Kakuma Refugee Camp and Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement in northwestern Kenya, with population of 186,692. After Dutch lawyer Jan van Hövell spent some time volunteering there, he started Klabu (which means “club” in Swahili) to use sports and games to make a difference in the lives of young refugees.

The club, which officially launched in May, works like a sports library run by the local community, with club managers (men and women from the refugee and local community) renting out sports and games equipment to refugee and local youth for affordable rates. Van Hövell says the library system ensures sports equipment is looked after and returned, and the income generated from the club is used to organize sports tournaments and to cover cleaning, maintenance, and repairs.

To help raise money for the foundation, van Hövell worked with Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam’s creative accelerator The Kennedys to develop a campaign and worked with former Nike designer Kelvin Govey to design a pair of stylish kits that are sold on the Klabu site and in its pop-up shop in Amsterdam. Van Hövell says the key was to make something just as cool as any of the new pro-team kits.

“Cool is the key word!” says van Hövell. “Instead of begging for donations, in return for support, we wanted to offer something people actually want and need. And so we came up with the idea of sportswear. But simple sportswear is not enough to make it desirable. It has to have swag. Combining sports with apparel makes our mission tangible. And apparel that’s premium, well-designed, and simply cool is the best vehicle for our message. We’re convinced that combining a nonprofit cause with sports and fashion is a fantastic way to create impact.”

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Since opening its first clubhouse in January, 8,000 refugees from 13 different African countries and local Kenyans have signed up for the sports library, borrowing equipment and sportswear every day, and participate in Klabu tournaments. The clubhouse was built in partnership with Roof For Humanity and together with refugees and local Kenyans has also become a social place for people to come together out of the hot sun, hold meetings, perform on stage, and simply hang out.

The goal is to build 10 more sports clubs in refugee camps over the next three years, and while the kit sales so far have been encouraging, van Hövell is hoping to partner with companies and organizations to expand and raise more funds to make it possible.

“Sports is such a powerful tool to bring people together,” says van Hövell. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a refugee girl in Kalobeyei or Megan Rapinoe, on the pitch the only language that counts is sports, and that language is universal. Sports build confidence, structure, and help regain meaning in life, whether in Kalobeyei, Rio, or the USA.”

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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