Lual Mayen: Uplifting Those in Need Through Entertainment

31 October 2019

Lual Mayen smiling for a picture. (Jesuit Refugee Service)

The conflict in South Sudan has now displaced over 4 million people and is the longest standing in the history of Africa. With two thirds of the country’s population under 24, instilling values in young people is important to the country’s future, says Lual Mayen, a South Sudanese entrepreneur and refugee.

“When you go to South Sudan, most children are born in war, so their mindset is war,” he said, sitting and sipping coffee less than a mile from the White House. It wasn’t long ago that the refugee ban had stopped him from entering the U.S., even though he wasn’t from one of the banned countries—now he had a stable job in the nation’s capital and was running his own game studio.

An accomplished professional before he reached the U.S., Lual funded his siblings’ educations in Uganda by selling software to schools. He also ran an information technology company in South Sudan while earning a computer engineering degree across the border in Uganda. Now, he runs Junub Games, a company composed of Lual and refugee volunteers who distribute his games at refugee camps. He wants to give back now that he’s “made it,” by giving refugees more inspiring experiences through his work.

His parents fled South Sudan in 1993 when conflict flared between the Nuer and the Dinka. While on their way to Uganda, they gave birth to Lual. He spent much of his early life in the resettlement area, Mungula, that his family ended up in. From early on, Lual’s family knew he was creative. As a young boy, he built a fake television that family and friends would gather around while he told stories with handmade characters. Occasionally, he’d get the chance to play video games. Lual would get lost in the worlds that let him do anything he wanted to, and he knew he wanted to try making them some day.

Lual attended a JRS-run school at Mungula. He wasn’t a great student at first. “We would go play soccer the whole day,” he said. “But my mom would be hard on me, [saying] ‘you have to go to school, you have to study.’” JRS-sponsored activities like academic debates were the sorts of activities that kept him active and engaged, and the food and clothing provided helped him live a more comfortable life both at school and home. “For me, I feel like JRS has really done its part,” he said. Unfortunately, Mungula provided only some escape from the conflict. “A lot of people were actually killed,” he said. Schoolchildren, in their bright yellow shirts, would have to hide in foxholes to avoid being spotted by roaming helicopters targeting civilians.

We would go play soccer the whole day. But, my mom would be hard on me, [saying] 'you have to go to school, you have to study.
Lual Mayen

In 2005, his family left for Imvepi Refugee Settlement. His parents kept pressuring him to excel academically, and with time, he developed a love for learning. He asked his mother to buy him a computer. She worked sewing bed sheets for two years to save up the money, and once she bought it, he set to work learning new skills. He trained himself in graphics and design, creating documents for people in the settlement.

Then, in 2009, he was sent off to a secondary school. Not everyone there was supportive of his hobby, but he persisted, sneaking his computer into the school and taking lessons in programming at night. “They wanted actually to suspend me from school because I sneak the computer inside, but I told them ‘no, I love the computer.’” When he would be caught using it, some teachers would hit him or tell him he had no future. “They tried their level best to discourage me, but I didn’t give up.” He borrowed money from his mother to charge it.

They tried their level best to discourage me, but I didn't give up.

Shortly after starting a software engineering program at a Ugandan university, he started a company in South Sudan and started to commute back and forth, working some weekends to pay for school. “I was like the only software developer in the country,” he said. When the war heated up once again in 2016, Lual was living in Juba and had to flee to Uganda again. He’d had enough. “I was like, ‘you know, our country is one of the blessed countries in the world. We have the energy, the capacity to build,” he said. “After the independence in 2011, [Juba] was the fastest growing city in Africa.

He wanted to do something to help change the future—after some thinking, he decided to pursue his passion and do good at the same time. He built a game, but it wasn’t like the violent ones he played when he was younger. “Instead of killing people, you have to make sure you save people,” he said. The game, Salaam (“peace” in Arabic), made waves in the humanitarian and gaming communities. By giving the children something to focus their free time on, Lual aims keep them out of trouble. “Video games are a vital way to connect with people,” he said. Instead of spending their time out of school unsupervised, planned activities like games lead to socialization and play—two things wanting in the lives of many refugees.

Video games are a vital way to connect with people. Instead of spending their time out of school unsupervised, planned activities like games lead to socialization and play—two things wanting in the lives of many refugees.

He was invited to speak at events, first in South Africa and then at a massive games industry conference in San Francisco in 2017. “I was real excited about it,” he said. Unfortunately, U.S. Customs included him under the refugee ban. Customs couldn’t distinguish between Sudan and South Sudan. Then came his big break: a startup incubator focused on peace building invited him to the U.S. to participate in their program. While there, he landed a job in Washington, D.C. and is now working on securing a visa, while doing what he can to work on games in his spare time.

Card games are popular in South Sudanese communities. Lual is working on his studio’s second game now, Wahda (“Unity” in Arabic), in which you use and collect different kinds of cards. Normal cards are items like “love,” “unity,” or “food.” Then, there are action cards like “war” that you have to use your item cards to neutralize. “In a game, you might have a scenario or a scene where someone is going to kill people,” Lual explained. “You have to use your energy to save those people from being killed.”

The game’s themes naturally lead to important conversations for children displaced or affected by war.  “If I play a card of “slavery,” what do you know about slavery? It’s a sort of learning. Most of the refugees, they don’t know someone like Oprah Winfrey exists, someone like Obama exists… They don’t have those inspirations, they don’t have a path,” he said. When you think differently, it doesn’t matter where you come from,” he said. “You can definitely make an impact from where you are.”

Lual’s ambitions are high as he looks toward the future. He wants to open the world’s largest peace building-focused game studio. But for now, he wants to keep his focus on the needs of the young displaced people his games serve. “I want to use my platform to give back to them.”

Lual Mayen was recently profiled in the Washington Post.