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Worth a Thousand Words: My Home Stars

Two Badger engineers are changing the lives of refugee children one board game at a time.

Joel Baraka and Anson Liow

Joel Baraka (right) and Anson Liow (left). Photo courtesy of UW College of Engineering.

Joel Baraka ’22 realized early the profound difference education can make in a person’s life. Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he grew up in Uganda’s Kyangwali Refugee Camp. While there, he experienced firsthand the challenges that come with receiving an education in an underresourced environment. Teachers regularly had more students than they could meaningfully interact with, and classrooms lacked necessary educational supplies, such as textbooks. Baraka noticed that kids were often left to their own devices in class, and he realized that an educational game would be a fun way to engage students.

He tinkered with prototypes, but the idea was put on hold as he worked toward his own education. Baraka finished secondary school in 2014 and earned a scholarship to the African Leadership Academy in South Africa. In 2017, Baraka came to UW–Madison as a King-Morgridge Scholar. That same year, he was personally awarded the Queen’s Young Leader Award by Queen Elizabeth II. The idea for the board game and My Home Stars — a nonprofit to facilitate the game’s development and distribution and to support refugee communities — didn’t come together until 2018 when Baraka met fellow engineering student Anson Liow ’21, MS’22.

Baraka became fast friends with Liow, who had grown up in Malaysia and spent time volunteering with refugee communities there before coming to the UW. The two bonded over their similar experiences, as well as their mutual love for games. Liow’s lifelong interest in understanding how things are built not only made him well-suited for a career in civil engineering but also prepared him to tackle the world of game design. He was the perfect partner to help turn Baraka’s idea into a playable game.

“We got to thinking, what can we do right now with the resources we have, with the connections that we have at the UW?” says Liow. Soon after, they focused their efforts on 5 STA-Z, an educational board game designed to make learning fun for refugee children. They worked directly with Ugandan teachers and their program coordinator to design a game that distills four subjects — math, English, science, and social studies — into a fun and accessible resource. The result is a colorful, constellation-themed game containing elements of chance and Jeopardy!-style questions. So far, they’ve distributed more than 2,000 games free to schools across Uganda, directly affecting thousands of students every day.

Currently, Baraka and Liow work full-time as project engineers for general contracting firms in Madison and Austin, Texas, respectively. Juggling their careers with their work for My Home Stars hasn’t been easy, but they’ve found that many of the problems they deal with as engineers help them troubleshoot issues that arise in their nonprofit work.

“The engineering mind-set is that you have a problem, and you’re trying to design a solution that fits the problem,” says Liow. “There are so many lessons we get from being engineering students that we can put into our nonprofit.”

A common issue for engineers — supply chain disruption — has also affected My Home Stars. Baraka and Liow continue to provide schools with the 5 STA-Z game free of charge, but the resources they have available to produce more games are limited. Although grants and donations help, Baraka and Liow wanted to establish a self-sustaining model to keep the games free. They spent a year and a half developing their second game, Your African Quest (YAQ). YAQ is a fast-paced card game focused on educating players about the people, wildlife, and cultures of the African continent. For every YAQ game sold, a 5 STA-Z game is donated, and more funds are made available to expand the mission of My Home Stars.

“We are trying to make an impact with every single coin we raise,” says Baraka. “I’m happy with the progress we’ve made, but I think we can do more.” With hopes to build a community center at a refugee camp they currently work in and efforts to expand the reach of 5 STA-Z to schools across Africa, Baraka and Liow are well on their way to changing lives one board game at a time.

School children play the 6 STA-Z board game.

The 5 STA-Z game, demonstrated here by Ugandan school children, is played in groups of five. Photo courtesy of My Home Stars.

Students play Your African Quest in Memorial Union.

Baraka (left) playing Your African Quest at Memorial Union. Photo courtesy of My Home Stars.

Ugandan students hold up a trophy after winning a 5 STA-Z tournament.

Erick Ziponi (right), a Ugandan-based program manager for My Home Stars, poses with students from P4T Primary School – winner of the 2023 5 STA-Z Academic Competition, where kids from several schools play in a tournament and compete for prizes. Photo courtesy of My Home Stars.

Educators sit together at a teaching workshop facilitated by My Home Stars.

My Home Stars facilitators hold discussions with local educators in a teaching workshop. Photo courtesy of My Home Stars.

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