It's rare that we are able to reconnect with former Right To Play participants once they leave our programs and go out into the world as adults. Recently we had the opportunity to do just that. Meet Malual Bol Kiir, a child refugee who has grown up to become a leading voice for youth and peace around the world.
"I am living what I learned from Right To Play," says Malual. "I was inspired by Right To Play to be a peace-builder and a leader. They showed me how to do it.”
Against the backdrop of a United Nations flag and in front of an audience of youth leaders, dignitaries and change makers, a young man stands center stage. He speaks candidly and passionately about his life and the journey it has taken. A journey borne from the upheaval and insecurity of being a child refugee to the position of being a recognized and respected global youth leader, working to drive change for young people in Africa. A journey he says was driven, directed and motivated by play. This is Malual Bol Kiir.
As a child, Malual participated in Right To Play's play-based, child-centered programming. Now, at 23, he’s the founder of the leadership- and peace-building African Youth Action Network (AYAN) and recognized as a global leader in the youth movement.
At this United Nations gathering in Geneva, Malual’s message is for the world’s youth. He speaks of their importance, the need for young people to have a voice and how he believes they can fill their lives with hope and promise.
"I am living what I learned from Right To Play," says Malual. “As a survivor of war, my dream is to become a human rights lawyer and continue being an advocate for peace. I was inspired by Right To Play to be a peacebuilder and a leader. They showed me how to do it. Now, we [AYAN] use similar methods to organize reconciliatory meetings in refugee camps in Uganda where I work using sports and music festivals to encourage refugees to focus on our collective fate.”
Life as a Child Refugee
Malual was only seven years old when he, his mother and younger brother fled the 2001 civil war in their home country, South Sudan. They left everything they owned and everyone they knew behind. It took them days to escape, first travelling on a cargo flight and then, in standing room only on the back of a truck.
When they finally arrived at the Invepi refugee camp in Yumbe, northern Uganda, Malual was tired, dirty and hungry. He’d hoped that his family’s struggle was over, but instead he was met with chaos and long queues. With so much “noise and harassment from various officials,” says Malual, getting into the camp and then, settling into his new life there wasn’t easy.
Daily chores, like fetching firewood and water from the river were difficult as resources were limited, while making friends seemed next to impossible.
“We couldn’t speak to other people from other tribes because we didn’t know their languages,” explains Malual. “We were poor and we had less than the bare necessities.”
Play: Malual’s Bright Light in the Refugee Camp
School became the boy’s sanctuary. While he struggled with the language barrier, Malual quickly found his stride in the classroom. And at the urging of his teachers, he met with the Right To Play team and joined their after school club.
“I enjoyed school very much and I was easily the best in all my classes,” says Malual. “The teachers were proud of me, especially the Head Teacher who chose me to meet the Right To Play coordinator.”
Being invited to join our programming by the Head Teacher was powerful for Malual, it was, he says, like a bright light at a very dark moment.
It was the first time in his young life that he felt chosen, worthy, and it filled Malual with hope, creating space in his mind to begin seeing himself as more than just a refugee, now and in the future.
The Message of the Blue Ball
Malual recalls how participating in our activities provided him with a sense of direction and purpose. The songs and games lifted his spirits, releasing some of the tension and anxiety he felt as a result of the conflict he’d witnessed. It also allowed him to communicate without words, creating a sense of inclusion and belonging with the other refugee children.
“The play days were the best days of my life,” says Malual. “We would sing, dance, play and eat good food. This was the first time I had a soda! Even the balls Right To Play gave us to play with were unique.”
Malual’s favourite ball was the blue one. During group activities, the coaches would rotate between five different coloured balls. Red was used for games where Malual and his peers learned numeracy and literacy. Black for physical development, yellow for feelings and emotions and green for health and well-being. The blue ball was used in group games and discussions around teamwork, peace-building and cooperation.
“I learned the spirit of forgiveness and tolerance,” says Malual. “If I had not taken part in those activities as a child, I would have remained tribal-minded and against the virtue of peace.”
But when he and the other children played with the blue ball, “everything outside the team faded away and only the team mattered. We became brothers and forgot that we were from different tribes; instead we learned to win as a team with diversity.”
These teachings stayed with Malual. In 2013, he and his family returned to South Sudan only to be forced to flee from it and seek refuge in the Uganda camp again. It was then, he says, that he realized the impact of his Right To Play experience.
Right To Play’s Impact
“Faced with the same circumstances, I started to recall the things I learned from Right To Play when I was a child,” says Malual. “Tribal differences divide us instead of bringing us together and tolerance of diversity is essential for peace building. The more I recalled, I realized that I have to live what I learned, that I needed to share what I know to contribute to rebuilding our country. It was a humbling experience,” he adds. “But you must accept what life brings to you.”
Wanting to share his knowledge and life skills, Malual reconnected with several of the youth he had met through the program a decade earlier. At his persuasion, they created the AYAN, an advocacy group for refugee youth to provide them with a safe space to share their thoughts and ideas and to promote youth’s rights by building leadership skills.
“My colleagues are all from different tribes; we are Nuer, Dinka and Equatorial, a mirror of South Sudan,” says Malual.
“Instead of breeding conflict amongst ourselves, we came together as a team, the way we did during the Right To Play games long ago. As refugees, our differences cannot help us. So we teach tolerance, perseverance and embracing diversity.”
With support from the UNHCR and through Malual’s leadership the AYAN implements peace-building initiatives in refugee and settlement camps throughout Uganda. Malual is in his final year of law school and recently, he received the Women’s Refugee Commission’s 2017 Voices of Courage Award, presented by Chelsea Clinton. And yet, he believes that if Right To Play had not influenced his life, he would be a soldier, fighting in the South Sudan war.
"Play is powerful, because it brings people together.”
“I would have been like all those youth who are being used by politicians to fight endless wars; I would have fought for my tribe,” explains Malual. “But instead, I stand for peace and to convince young people that we can be the solution and not part of the problem.”
Story by Adriana Ermter with files from Lilliane Pitters
Photography by Kennedey Oryema, Christian Mafigiri and courtesy of Malual Bol Kiir