“The first time I got to see a computer was when I was waiting in line to be registered as a refugee. UNHCR staff were using computers to enter data and I was so fascinated by it. I asked my mother if I could have a computer and she laughed,” said Lual Mayen, CEO of the start-up Junub Games and founder of the Lual Mayen Foundation.
Mayen was born 26 years ago during the 362 kilometre arduous journey his family took to flee civil war in their home country of South Sudan. Two of his sisters died during their trip, before the family could eventually reach a camp for internally displaced people (IDP) in Northern Uganda.
“My family did not choose to become refugees. They wanted a place of refuge, a place where they could start new life. Fleeing South Sudan was a question of life and death,” he said.
It took Mayen’s mother three years to work and save up enough money to buy him a computer.
“There were a lot of things that were lacking for the refugees in the camp. For me, it was quality education,” he said. “Even after getting the computer, it was hard for me to learn how to use it or even find a place to charge it. So I would walk every single day for hours to find a generator to charge my computer and then started training myself with online digital programing tutorials.”
Mayen spent 22 years in the IDP camp. In the camp, a friend initiated him into the world of video games and Mayen decided to create his own. His main objective was to entertain those living in the camp, but he soon realised that gaming could be a powerful tool to create empathy for refugees and bring social change. He created a game for mobile phones called Salaam (Peace) that puts the player in the shoes of a refugee fleeing war. Mayen said he wanted people to understand the journey of a refugee. The character in the game was inspired by his mother.
“I created a system whereby when you buy food or water in the game via in-app purchases, you actually buy it for someone in a refugee camp as the money goes directly to NGOs working on the ground,” Mayen said. “I am now building a virtual reality experience that shows that even small behaviours and choices can have devastating and far-reaching consequences. The goal is to help the player practice and experience how to avoid war and violence by resolving conflict.”
In 2017, Mayen moved to the United States where he created his company and a foundation through which he works to provide access to technology, education and career opportunities to under-resources communities, such as refugee camps in Kenya and Uganda. He recently signed a partnership with game engine maker, Unity Technologies, to fund a tech centre for refugees at the camp where he grew up in Uganda.
“Looking back at my mother’s journey and the fact that she was able to work so hard for my family and find a place of refuge so we could have a life was a big motivation for me,” Mayen said. “I believe in human talent. No matter who you are or where you live, not matter if you are a refugee or living in a well-developed country, we can all contribute something to the world. We all have a purpose; refugees have a purpose. I love creating games and, more than that, I love giving back to my community.”
UNHCR estimates that there are around 26.4 million refugees around the world, half of whom are under the age of 18. Figures from 2019 show that more than 3.7 million children of school age are not enrolled in school. A UNHCR survey conducted with Syrian and Iraqi refugees revealed that three of the most important items refugees take with them when they are forcibly displaced are water, food and their mobile phones.
UNHCR also points out that a mobile phone with an internet connection can mean faster access to safety, a line to relatives, accessing important documents stored online and finding out about services to refugees and asylum seekers. However, refugees are 50 per cent less likely than the general population to have a connected phone and 29 per cent to own a phone at all, cost being the main barrier.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the digital exclusion of the most vulnerable, including refugees. For UNHCR, they could benefit from better digital inclusion to access remote learning and remote working in a world where there is increasing demand for freelancing on online work platforms.
“It is important to invest in the infrastructure in refugee camps. That is what motivated me to create my foundation and now we are able to train refugees,” Mayen said.
Lual Mayen has received several prizes in recognition of his work, including the 2020 CNN Champions for Change; the Global Gaming Citizen prize at 2018 Game Awards’ hosted by Facebook Gaming; and the 2019 Game Awards. He also received an award at the Young Activists Summit in Geneva in November 2021.
This story is part of Human Rights Champions – a recurring series featuring portraits of human rights defenders or organizations that stand up for human rights.