On the rooftop of a local neighborhood spot, Lual Mayen greets a server, fellow diner, and bartender, all before making his way to his seat. Infectious energy and outgoing nature aside, Lual encourages a sense of community and familiarity in the place he now calls home. This was not always the case.
Lual’s mother gave birth to him on the long and arduous journey from South Sudan to a refugee camp in Uganda. Fleeing the Sudanese civil war, Lual’s family was forced to leave the place they called home for many years and start anew. As a result of his family’s sacrifice, Lual’s story begins not in his homeland of South Sudan but in a Ugandan refugee camp where he would stay for 22 years.
A common misconception of refugee camps, Lual says, is that it is a “temporary thing, but no.” Displaced people can live their whole life calling a camp home. Lual’s upbringing is a testament to this notion. For over two decades, the community inside the refugee camp was all he had ever known. Lual described the overall sentiment of his life there; the “focus was to survive”, he said. Neverlessless, Lual found pockets of joy in his life. Watching soccer with friends, conversing with friendly neighbors, and perhaps the most appealing in his eyes, video gaming.
Ironically, Lual’s first exposure to video games was through the popular action-adventure game Grand Theft Auto or GTA. In observing this game, Lual saw beyond the draw of violence and mind-blowing special effects; he saw an opportunity to share a message. He describes his aha moment perfectly, “Gaming is powerful. It becomes part of you. How about I make a game about peace and conflict resolution?” and that is precisely what Lual did.
After teaching himself to write code and walking miles and miles just to get a decent internet connection from a local cafe, Lual accomplished what he set out to do, create his own video game.
Since a strong internet connection was hard to come by, Lual uploaded his game to Facebook, requiring less connectivity than YouTube or an app store. He reminisces about that life-changing night, “I uploaded it to Facebook, went to sleep, and when I woke up, it [the game] had blown up.” Within hours, Lual’s game had gone viral.
Called Salaam, which means peace in Arabic, the game allows users to take a virtual trek to a “peaceful environment,” but only if they can dodge hostile troops and find enough food and water. Lual’s unique take on gaming and messages of peace and community was unlike anything that had hit the market prior. It gained traction and caught the eye of investors, and eventually, he could move from the refugee camp to Washington D.C. and his family as well.
Like many resettled refugees, Lual’s transition to living in the U.S. was far from seamless. Early on, he felt isolated and confused why people on the street avoided eye contact with him and lacked the neighborly friendliness he was accustomed to back home. To make his new city feel like home, Lual turned to a tried and true tool for help, the internet. On his first morning in Washington, D.C., he opened Eventbrite to see the weekend happenings in the city. Funny enough, the first event to pop up was the One Journey Festival in 2018. When the festival rolled around the following year in 2019, Lual was featured as a self-made gaming extraordinaire.
For as far as he has come and the countless barriers he has overcome, Lual is far from finished. His company Junub Games is dropping a game in the coming months to the App Store and PS5. His foundation, the Lual Mayen Foundation, continues to provide opportunities to refugees facing barriers because, as Lual so eloquently states, “Talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not”. A trailblazer and community pillar, Lual continues to excel in not one but all facets of his life. We can’t wait to see what’s next for him.
You can meet Lual and play his game Salaam in the Technology Tent at the One Journey Festival on Saturday, June 24, at the Washington National Cathedral. Get your free tickets to this full day of celebration, food, shopping and fun HERE.