When someone asks Makol Mawien where he comes from it takes him a moment to respond.
It’s not a simple question, given his background.
Mawien, a junior forward on the Kansas State basketball team, was born inside a refugee camp in Cairo, Egypt. But he grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah and now lives in Manhattan as a full-fledged U.S. citizen. He could claim any of those cities as his own, yet he identifies most with a country he has never visited.
“I tell most people I am from South Sudan,” Mawien said during an exclusive interview. “That is where my family is from. Utah is where I spent most of my life, but I came here as a refugee and it wasn’t just me. A lot of us formed a large community. Everyone in my neighborhood looked like me. It was a little Africa. Sometimes I tell people I am from Utah, but I feel like I should claim South Sudan, for good reason.”
Mawien’s journey to America began in the mid 1990s when his parents, fearing for their lives, fled a war-torn Sudan and escaped to Cairo, where they lived in refugee camps with no certain future. They lived in abandoned apartments, scavenged the area for food, begged churches for clothes, worked jobs that paid them pennies and somehow raised young children without help from their extended family.
Mawien’s parents preferred that life to being hunted by soldiers in Sudan because of their education levels and religious beliefs. They dreamed about a better life in America and survived long enough for it to become reality.
Change even the smallest of details along the way, and Mawien could be back in South Sudan today, fighting for his life instead of rebounds.
“I think about it all the time,” Mawien said. “Things would have been way different for me. My uncle lived there until he was a teenager and eventually escaped through refugee camps in Kenya. The stories he tells me are crazy. It was very dangerous. People were fighting all the time, killing for food. Some of the things he told me are too horrible to repeat. I am blessed to be here right now.”
Since joining the Wildcats last season, the 6-foot-9, 245-pound forward has started 68 straight games and become an indispensable member of the team’s frontcourt alongside Dean Wade.
Though he is only averaging 6.5 points and 4.6 rebounds this season, teammates describe him as the unsung hero of a group that finished the regular season 24-7 and shared the Big 12 championship with Texas Tech.
“You can’t replace what he does for us,” Wade said.
“He is definitely a key contributor that I feel like gets overshadowed a little bit,” Barry Brown said. “I don’t think we could win without him.”
It’s important to remember all the little things Mawien has done this season, because some have criticized him for making too many sloppy mistakes. He missed three uncontested dunks during a game at West Virginia and lost control of some easy entry passes during a recent win at TCU. He might lead the Big 12 in oops plays. He is also constantly fighting an uphill battle with Big 12 officials.
“I’m always in foul trouble,” Mawien said. “I hate it.”
Still, the positive moments outweigh the bad … by a significant margin.
He made game-winning plays against both West Virginia and TCU. They might not have been as easy to notice as his forehead slapping mistakes, but they happened.
Hardly a game goes by without Bruce Weber praising Mawien for playing superb defense or doing some kind of dirty work that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet.
He’s definitely the strongest player on K-State’s roster. Teammates marvel every time he maxes out on the bench press.
With Wade unlikely to play in the Big 12 Tournament this week, and his NCAA Tournament status up in the air because of a foot injury, Mawien will have an opportunity to expand his game. K-State will be counting on him more than ever.
And to think, things had to line up perfectly for him to play basketball for the Wildcats.
Mawien started hooping at a young age in Salt Lake City. There was an outdoor court in his neighborhood and every kid in the area played there, even during the winter. Pick-up games were sweaters vs. jackets instead of shirts vs. skins.
He showed promise right away. He had to if he wanted to compete against his older brother and a neighborhood full of other Sudanese refugees that were just as big as he was. His older brother was the best player out there, but a knee injury prevented him from playing college basketball. His cousin, Kur Kuath, is now a junior at Oklahoma.
These weren’t easy games.
“I never felt tall in my neighborhood,” Mawien said. “I just felt normal.”
Mawien was good enough to play in high school and become a top 150 recruit. Several schools out West recruited him, including the nation’s current No. 1 ranked team — Gonzaga. He wanted to play for the Bulldogs, but his uncle convinced him he would be better off staying close to his family and enrolling at Utah.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, but he entered college as a defensive stopper without much of an offensive skill set. So he spent his freshman season on the sideline with a redshirt while he tried to develop a more complete playing style.
Along the way, he decided to transfer to New Mexico Junior College and hit the reset button on his college career. K-State coaches spotted him late during the recruiting process, but won him over almost immediately.
This time, he made his own decision.
That was a big step for him. Mawien is a quiet person. Always has been. His mother, Adut Dour, likes to tell a story about the time Mawien’s fifth-grade teacher called her in for a meeting and asked if there was trouble at home, because he rarely spoke in school, even during recess with friends.
She laughed and assured the teacher there were no issues. He’s just quiet.
“He never tells us anything about college when he’s home,” Dour said. “What does he tell you about it? I would like to know.”
By all accounts, Mawien is having fun in Manhattan. He’s been to the Elite Eight and hoisted a conference championship trophy and his senior season is still ahead of him. But he rarely gets to see his family now, and he badly misses his mother’s cooking. He’s never found Sudanese food anywhere else.
She came to visit him earlier this year and watched K-State beat KU at Bramlage Coliseum. She watched as fans stormed the court to celebrate and high-fived Mawien on his way into the locker room.
Other than being in foul trouble during the game, Mawien was proud of what he was able to show his mother. They both think K-State has proven to be the right place for him.
“I like it here, even though I personally feel like I should be playing a little better,” Mawien said. “I had a 29-point game last year and scored 18 twice against TCU, so I have shown what I can do. But I have only shown it in spurts. I’m not finished yet.”
A hard life
Most of Mawien’s family remains in the Salt Lake area. It became home for them, and hundreds of others of Sudanese refugees, when they were granted asylum here, and they never left. They throw huge parties and pay tribute to their African culture while living an American life.
But his father now lives in South Sudan, where he works as an ambassador for the country Mawien claims as his own.
You might expect Mawien to be proud of his father for having such a prominent job, but he doesn’t like to talk about his dad, who chose work over family and left his life nearly a decade ago.
Mawien credits his mother for raising him and his five siblings. English is her second language (she agreed to speak for this story with translation help from her brother) but she learned it well enough to obtain a GED, pass the U.S. citizenship test and get a job at the food section of a nearby Walmart.
“I am proud of my mom for doing that,” Mawien said. “She didn’t have much of an education coming here, didn’t speak English, didn’t finish high school and then my pops left when I was 13. She took care of the whole family. And we have a big family. I’m not sure how she did it all herself.”
She says it felt easy compared to raising three babies in a refugee camp.
“We were treated like cockroaches in Cairo,” she said. “Life was very hard. Every day was a struggle. Things are much better here.”
Mawien says he hasn’t spoken to his father since he left for South Sudan.
“I’m immature about it,” Mawien said. “When he was around, all he talked about was going home and helping his country.”
Mawien would like to visit South Sudan, which gained its independence from Sudan in 2011. Maybe even this summer, but that’s difficult considering the current state of the African nation. Civil war still rages there, and the death toll continues to rise. Locals are still fleeing the country to refugee camps.
Dour flew home five years ago hoping to care for her sick mother, but was unable to locate her and sadly returned to Utah.
Curious as he is to learn more about his roots, most people living in South Sudan long for the life Mawien is currently living.
“The dream of anyone over there is to come to America and have a better life here,” said Mawien’s uncle, Aken Dour. “We ran away hoping that we might see the Statue of Liberty, go to school, get jobs and make enough money to help our families.”
Mawien’s family has not only taken advantage of their opportunity, but thrived in America. Mawien will have an opportunity to play professional basketball and his sisters are on track to earn college degrees.
That takes us to one of the best moments of Mawien’s life. It occurred a few months ago when he was granted U.S. citizenship.
Like most people who live in this country, he took his citizenship for granted most of his life. He didn’t actually realize he wasn’t a citizen until his mother obtained her papers last year, and she informed him it was his turn to do the same.
That news hit Mawien like a gut punch. How could he have lived in America for 20 years and not be a citizen?
Mawien was born in Egypt, grew up in Utah and has family roots in South Sudan, but at that moment he felt like a man without a country.
Where does he come from? For about a year, he didn’t know how to answer.
Now, he’s more confident. His family is from South Sudan, but this is where he belongs.