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For 22 years of his life, Lual Mayen lived in a refugee camp in northern Uganda. His parents fled from South Sudan and its decades-long civil war. Against all odds, he made a mobile game about peace, and it was his ticket to a new life. He migrated to Washington, D.C., and became a game developer.
While Mayen is still trying to make it in games, he has already done what most successful people don’t do until much later in life. He has set up the charity Lual Mayen Foundation to help refugees. And game engine maker Unity Technologies has partnered with the foundation to fund a tech center for refugees at the vast refugee camp in Uganda where Mayen grew up.
Mayen’s journey is quite inspiring, and he has moved a lot of people with his story of perseverance. That drew the attention of institutions such as The Game Awards, CNN and other big media, and now Unity, which established a social impact fund after it went public last year. Unity will contribute $50,000 for the first year, and it will help the tech center train refugees how to make games and get careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The goal is to make it a permanent program in the long run.
“They really believe in the mission and what I’m working on,” Mayen said. “With their grant, we will be able to train refugees on 3D animation on the Unity game engine.”
Through the Uganda Ministry of Education, the foundation will create structured certificate programs that enable refugees to explore career opportunities in STEM fields. It is the hope of the Lual Mayen Foundation that access to technology and structured learning opportunities will prepare the next generation of young people for promising careers in STEM.
“We started our social impact work formally about a year ago, and we have had some pretty competitive processes for both identifying and funding creators,” said Jessica Lindl, the general manager of social impact and education at Unity, in an interview with GamesBeat. “Lual blew our minds as he is aligned with all of the focus areas that we have. And we’re just thrilled that we’re able to support him.”
I first heard Mayen tell his story at game dev Rami Ismail’s #1ReasonToBe panel at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in 2019. As he told that story, no dry eyes remained in the audience. So, I met with Mayen and captured his story on video. He told his story so well.
As noted, Mayen spent the first 22 years of his life as a refugee. His family fled from South Sudan in the country’s civil war and wound up at a refugee camp in Uganda. On the way to the camp, Mayen was born. He was one of seven children.
Mayen was one of more than 2.5 million displaced by the civil war, which began in 1983. In the refugee camp, Mayen’s mother was a seamstress. One day, he saw a computer at a registration station for the camp, and he asked his mother for a computer.
She told him how expensive it would be, but she secretly saved up money for three years to buy a $300 laptop for him. When she gave it to him in 2013, he burst into tears. He took it to an internet cafe.
Mayen used it, among other things, to learn how to play games. One of those games was Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. He didn’t know how games were made, and he joked that he thought they “came down from heaven.” He discovered the joy of gaming.
But he had to go through ordeals just to play. It was a three-hour walk to get to the internet cafe, but he made the journey regularly just to charge his computer and play games. As a child born in a violent war, Mayen thought about how to create a game that could inspire peace. He taught himself to make games and formed his own company, Junub Games.
He created a game called Salaam (an Arabic word that means peace) about protecting communities from being destroyed. It was a 10-megabit mobile game, but he could only distribute it via Bluetooth networking. It was a simple runner game where a character, based on his mother, had to escape as gunfire was bursting around her.
The path to fame
That game put Mayen on the road to become internationally known. The game spread in a viral way. A conference organizer at A Maze discovered it, tracked him down, and asked him to speak at a conference on games in South Africa.
There, Mayen met Ismail, the cofounder of Vlambeer and an successful game developer. As an ambassador for indies, Ismail encouraged Mayen to pursue his passion of making games. Mayen also made a board game, Wahda, that encourages peaceful conflict resolution. He did so because it did not require a computer to play, so refugees may have a chance to play it.
Ismail paid for certain panelists to come to the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. But despite an invitation, Mayen wasn’t able to go in 2017 because of President Donald Trump’s immigration restrictions. His visa wasn’t approved in time.
In late 2018, Mayen appeared at The Game Awards, where he was named a Global Gaming Citizen in conjunction with an award sponsored by Facebook. (About 27 million people watched that show.) That event was where then-Facebook leader Leo Olebe, who has been in the game industry for 20 years, met Mayen. Mayen made it to the GDC in March 2019, and he gave a hell of an inspiring talk. In October 2020, CNN named Mayen one of its “Champions for Change.” We had Mayen on stage with Olebe of Facebook for an inspiring talk at our GamesBeat event in January.
He also started the Lual Mayen Foundation, to empower refugees with technology. And his team is working on making his game, Salaam, available on Facebook as an instant game.
The refugee crisis
The numbers show just how lucky Mayen was, and why he wants to help give back. At the end of 2019, nearly 80 million people were displaced around the world according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN’s refugee agency. Among them are 26 million refugees, and 50% are under the age of 18.
Millions of stateless people are often forced to travel long distances through dangerous conditions in the hope of finding a place of refuge as they wait to return to their life, or relocate to build a different one. Even when they arrive in the temporary camps and settlements designed for this purpose, refugees often still lack access to many basic services such as education, employment, healthcare, and freedom of movement. And as Mayen experienced, people can spend decades in the “temporary” camps.
Nearly 3.7 million refugee children are out of school worldwide. Meanwhile, refugees face limited job opportunities, both inside and outside of camps. As the world becomes more and more connected — and dependent upon that connectivity — the humanitarian sector and those it serves have been largely left out.
Globally, refugees are 50% less likely than the general population to have an internet-capable phone. While 20% of rural refugees have no access to connectivity, urban refugees often have access but cannot afford to get online.
Connecting with Unity
Unity has a charitable fund to make education more accessible and provide economic opportunities for underrepresented creators. Rachel Pohl, who leads the fund, connected with Mayen as he had access to free Unity products and services.
“As she began learning more about the work and the long term vision that he had, she encouraged him to submit for a grant application,” Lindl said.
“At the end of the day, you know, my focus has always been on giving resources to refugees,” Mayen said. “I had a talk with Unity and learned about their Social Impact program.”
He filled out an application for a grant and it was quickly approved. Unity will underwrite the classes for the refugees for the first year.
Unity will also assist with different lab mentorships. The foundation will buy computers, set up internet access, and locate people to train the students at refugee locations in both Uganda and Kenya. The aim is to train about 500 refugees over a couple of years.
“Our principle here is change really happens when when all voices are heard, and having watched Lual even before we started the social impact work and what he did himself as a former refugee,” Lindl said. He taught himself to code and he designed a game that was telling his story and putting people at the center of it. We are really aligned with that vision.”
Where necessary, the students may also have to learn via remote learning, due to the ongoing pandemic. And as needed, the foundation will pay for the needed internet data usage.
“Our hope is that he will be very successful with his funding and the goals that he’s trying to achieve. And then we can look into a multi year commitment,” Lindl said.
Lindl said it’s incredibly important to do the training in the refugee camp itself, as that’s where the need is.
“Being able to go to where these young people are, and provide them this opportunity within the context of their lives, is frankly the only option that they probably have to be able to get access to tech careers and job opportunities of the future,” she said.
At a time when nearly one person is displaced every two seconds, the work of the Lual Mayen Foundation is more important than ever, Mayen said.
The symbol incorporated into the logo is the Adinkra symbol Hwehwemudua. It means “measuring stick,” a symbol of examination and quality control. This symbol stresses the need to strive for the best quality, whether in production of goods or in human endeavors.
The Lual Mayen Foundation will target post-secondary education and young adults as a means to catalyze generational change.
Due to the constant influx of people in search of safety within its borders, the government of Uganda has sought new means of delivering basic services to its ever-growing population of refugees. As a result, whatever gets built in the refugee camp is expected to remain for future groups of refugees, even long after the current residents have gone home. The center could provide locals a meeting place for years to come.
The foundation is also helping refugees save and store their family memories. Those documents, photos, and videos are often lost, destroyed, or left behind. Mayen’s foundation is partnering with Western Digital’s WD Black gaming storage brand to provide some hard drives to refugee and Photomyne to develop a library of digital memories for refugees. Mayen also has a new partnership with Origin PC.
Photomyne is an app for Android and iOS that captures images of physical photographs. Using a mobile app that takes a picture of the picture is a quick way to “scan” photos. Once you have scanned the pictures, you can fix faded color, scratches, tears and other blemishes in the photos. Western Digital has also given some money, Mayen said.
He wants the foundation to continue helping for a long time, and he needs more support for that.
“The sustainability matters a lot, and it is something I think about a lot,” Mayen said. “This is a short three-month program for the refugees. I hope we can do more in terms of training them for longer times or maybe get them support for job opportunities or internships. We’ll definitely welcome different companies to provide support, and that can be in many ways.”
This does some good for Unity as well, as it helps it reach an emerging market. Unity’s education program supports about 500,000 students a year who are learning to use Unity.
“We don’t think that’s enough. The reason that we identify partners like Lual is because having that in-person, live learning connection within the context and culture that you’re learning in is what’s critical to get somebody with absolutely no background prepared for an entry level job,” Lindl said. “If you want to just play and get familiar with coding, I think you can do that with broad-scale applications. But if you want to actually go from zero background into an entry level position, it takes human connections, and not just great coaches, but also a community, a learning community to support you along the way.”
Unity is looking at doing this in other parts of the world, including the Middle East. You never know where the next Lual Mayen will come from.
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