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Using Friendship & Sports to Include Refugees. Meet the Problem Solver – Noemie Marchyllie

Noemie Marchyllie, building friendship through sport, one newcomer at a time.

Noemie Marchyllie with her relay team at a Paris race

There’s an old Randy Newman song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” that plays in my mind as I think about the work of this sport & social business entrepreneur, Noemie Marchyllie. The song happens to match the tone set by Noemie and the refugee inclusion organization she leads, Kabubu. Its mission? Friendship through sport.

As co-founder & president, Noemie diligently adheres to the problem she set out to solve three years ago: including refugees and asylum seekers through sports. “I heard that France wants to leave a real legacy for the Olympics in 2024,” says Noemie. “At this moment, I wondered how I could improve myself and how I could commit myself to a better world. Sports appeared to be a very good way and a solution to make a difference, a real impact in our society, as a “universal language”.

Exclusion, isolation, prejudice, language, and other challenges facing asylum-seeking and refugee populations prompted Noemie and her team of co-founders (including immigrants & refugees representing 6 different nations) to look to the inclusive power of sport. The niche solution they focus on is exactly as their slogan suggests: creating sports programs designed to build friendship between Parisians, ex-pats, refugees, and asylum-seekers. “You don’t need to speak the same language to play together in a football match,” says Noemie. She asserts the power she sees it have in fostering a greater sense of equality, physical and mental health.

Kabubu’s recognition as a needed (and deeply-loved) fixture of the Paris sports landscape comes from a bit of magic sauce, one that Noemie is a master chef at cooking up. It boils down to a few components:

  1. A community of friends who know your name: Even after over two years of running sports programs in Paris, interacting with over 2,000 beneficiaries, Noemie makes it a point: to know the names of newcomers, and to treat every one of them as a friend. Part of what makes Kabubu a success is it provides a sense of solidarity, camaraderie, and fellowship to young refugees alone in Paris. Noemie leads by example and makes sure that the directors of each of Kabubu’s 7 weekly sports programs follow suit.
  2. Play for fun: Kabubu sports programs follow a method that puts relationship-building above competing. The purpose is to pall up and playing. The development process has been, as with any game, fun for Kabubu too. It’s in this way that Noemie especially upholds the seventh principle of social business:” do it with joy”. And she has maintained that stance in every phase of development: “We build Kabubu step by step,” she shares. “We began with a “prototype” (special thanks to the American Church in Paris, who let us use their gym for a 12-week program). We saw that we could create a strong community around this project, that there was a real need (and demand) for this type of friendship-building.” From football, Kabubu has gradually added recurrent programs, now offering 7 sports sessions a week, all oriented around play for friendship’s sake. These programs coincide with various annual events and partnerships with local competitions, races, and clubs.
  3. Social business, providing revenue to sustain itself & economic opportunities to help beneficiaries sustain themselves: The revenue-generating model is one that Kabubu continues to refine. Inspired by Professor Yunus’s approach to solving social challenges, meeting him twice, presenting Kabubu’s revenue-generation plans, and taking his advice to heart, Noemie has committed herself to try, pivoting, and retrying to make Kabubu a sustainable social business; one that financially sustains the organization as well as provide opportunities for its beneficiaries to do so as well.

Kabubu has succeeded to generate income through three models:

  • First, a solidarity payment system for their weekly sports programs. Locals pay slightly more, to cross finance those who can less afford. Everybody is a contributor, even for a symbolic amount. It is about dignity.
  • Second, co-design of sports equipment (beginning with yoga mats, now on sale through Baya Yoga)
  • Third, private sports events, tournaments, and programs for corporations. This model has proved most successful for Kabubu, the success of which Noemie attributes to the effect on employees, “making employees move and meet people from all over the world can improve their productivity at work, their team spirit and help them to stay open-minded.” The double-hitter here? Developing sport in companies has helped to offer professional opportunities for refugees.

“By speaking with participants in our weekly programs, we saw a need for training and professional development opportunities.” As friends of their beneficiaries, Kabubu has always been motivated to ensure more than just inclusion in sport, but comprehensive social inclusion through sport. For this reason, Kabubu launched two programs dedicated to sport & economic opportunity: one for professional training with event volunteer programs like the World Cup and the Paris Marathon. One, a 6-month program for training & certifying sports coaches.

Noemie began with a desire to improve herself and her city by helping to improve the lives of others. She uses sport & friendship to do it, and social business to keep her efforts sustained. Noemie is a true social business leader and will be the first to assure you — no matter who you are, where you come from, or how well you do (or don’t) kick a soccer ball — that you too, can make a difference, and do it with joy. You may even make some friends along the way 😉

Next time you’re in Paris, drop by and check out the sports programs running while you’re in town. If you show up, you’re sure to be on your way to building friendships through sport.