Lual Mayen: Entrepreneur, Game Developer and South Sudanese Refugee

My name is Lual Mayen and I am originally from South Sudan.  On November 15th, 1991, during the Second Sudanese Civil War, the Bor Massacre occurred, killing an estimate of 2000 civilians in Bor. The massacre was carried out mostly by Nuer fighters from SPLA-Nasir, a faction of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).  They were led by Riek Machar from SPLA and a militant group known as the Nuer White Army. In the years that followed, an estimated 25,000 more died from famine as their cattle were either stolen or shot.  As a result, my parents were displaced and alone. By foot, they fled from violence. In 1993, they arrived at a place near the border of Uganda called Aswa.  It was a camp for internally displaced people near Nimule on the South Sudan-Uganda border. 

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I was born there at the refugee camp as my parents were searching for resettlement.  In 1994, the camps were opened in Nimule and Mungali where they finally settled for about 13 years.  Living there wasn’t easy because the LRA (Lord's Resistance Army) started to attack and kill massive amounts of people. My parents and I were constantly fearful for our lives and it was common to see neighbors and friends in the camp being beaten to death.  They started moving to the refugee camps in Northern Uganda in 2004. We managed to make our way to the  refugee settlement in Arua district. In 2010, after the comprehensive peace agreement in Sudan, most of the refugees were repatriated back home.  However, my family and a few other refugees didn’t go back to South Sudan due to the continuing violence and instability.  We believed the schools at the refugee camp were better than going back to Sudan and we wanted our education to not be interrupted. In 2011, South Sudan got her independence from Sudan and everyone was very excited. But again, the war broke out in December 2013 where over 300,000 people were reported killed and over 2.5 million people displaced.  My relatives who returned were all killed during the war.

There is no peace at all in South Sudan because of the continued fighting and the never-ending cycle of war. Our only hope was to live in the refugee camp.

Life in the refugee camp in Uganda was challenging but certainly better than living in a war-torn country like South Sudan.  Growing up as a refugee is not a choice but it is something that is forced upon you.  Imagine yourself being trapped under a cave with rocks weighing you down.  Those rocks represent violence of your home country, poverty and bureaucracy leaving you with nothing but hopelessness and fear of never having a better life.  It is one of worst experiences one can have. My thoughts keep coming back to my parents escaping from South Sudan to Uganda, sacrificing their lives to build a better future for them and their children. There was never enough medical assistance and the place was suffocated with people.  Because of the lack of water, people did not and do not have enough to drink, much less to use those water reserves to shower.  As the days go by, the children’s’ cries for food becomes louder. 

However, through my education in Uganda, I felt very blessed.  I had the opportunity to study software engineering where I found my passion for my future work.  I gained knowledge in coding and programming mostly from short courses that I took, in addition to self-teaching.  Meanwhile, my parents were unsuccessfully applying for resettlement in the US and Canada for many years.  We knew of many families also trying to move to other countries for a better future but failed to do so as well.  Despite all this, I never took for granted my experience living in Uganda as I would never have dreamed that it would lead me to my path of success.  

From a young age, I realized the only way I could overcome my problems was my positive and hopeful attitude. I utilized all I had, which was going to school and making use of everything I got from my education.  In this way, I trained myself to be adaptive and resourceful to make the best of whatever little that I had.  My mother was supportive of my interest in computer programming though there was no access to computers and internet. She started saving money for about 2 years from working as a tailor and making bed covers.  My mother then managed to buy me my first computer.  I recall being so excited and was determined to make good use of it.  I started teaching myself computer programing and game design. I grew up playing Grand Theft Auto Vice City and, through the focus that I had, managed to create my own video games.

Fast forward to today, my startup, Junub Games, has been established as a nonprofit making use of games to promote peace and stability in South Sudan.  My goal is to alleviate suffering in the war-torn community as well as to raise awareness of the killing and displacement of millions in South Sudan.  My nonprofit was selected as one of the best startups using technology for peacebuilding by PeaceTech Accelerator, a project run by C5 capital, PeaceTech lab, and Amazon Web Services.  After the program, I received a contract with the IFC world bank, Washington D.C. for programming.  Once I was invited to speak at a Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.  I told my parents about the good news and everyone was excited and supportive of me.  However, a few days before my Visa interview, the refugee travel ban was imposed and I was greatly affected.  Even though it did not include South Sudan, the system could not differentiate between Sudan and South Sudan.  In the end, I was not able to attend the conference.  Speaking at GDC was one of my biggest dreams and it was the first time that the organization had ever invited a former refugee as a featured speaker. 

In this age of political tension and bigotry, many people have asked me how to empower immigrant and refugee youth.  The best way is to focus on things that count.  This means working hard to prove people who are against immigrants and refugees wrong.  I encourage youths to utilize all the resources we take for granted.  It is hard being a refugee because you feel isolated, abandoned, and are oftentimes mistreated.  In fact, it is a business for some people in society!  My advice is that if you are displaced from your country, you must expect such things to happen to you.  If today I walk down the road and someone insults me as a refugee, I will just stay silent.  Despite everything, I will just wish that person well.    

Felicia Philibert