Vietnamese American brothers create a video game to benefit Syrian refugees

When Chinh and Khoa Vu were growing up in Orange County’s Little Saigon, their favorite movie was “The Ten Commandments,” the 1956 biblical epic starring Charlton Heston as Moses.

“That’s the only movie that our parents would show us,” said Khoa. “We had the tape on VHS and we’d watch it every Easter. Moses was such a cool superhero to us.”

The brothers, who now live in Newport Beach, said they identified with Moses because, like their family who escaped Vietnam in 1979, he was a refugee.

“There’s a reason our parents told us this story,” said Khoa. “They were on an Exodus too when they were being oppressed.”

Now Chinh, 44, and Khoa, 34, are using the character of Moses to draw attention to Syrian refugees, whose present-day struggle they say bears similarities to their parents’, as well as to that of the ancient Israelites thousands of years ago.

This year the brothers, co-founders of the software company Ayotree.com, released the Android and iOS mobile game “Moses the Freedom Fighter” and will donate all of its proceeds to Oxfam America’s Syria and Refugee Crisis Response Fund.

Nearly 5 million Syrians have fled their country since 2011, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, while an additional 6.3 million are internally displaced.

The Vu brothers’ goal is to reach $10,000 by World Refugee Day on June 20. They had raised more than $2,000 by May 2.

“It just made sense that we help refugees because we are refugees,” said Khoa.

According to Chinh, he and his family escaped Vietnam in 1979 after their father, a high-ranking official in the South Vietnamese Army, was released from a re-education camp.

They then took a boat to Malaysia, where they stayed in a refugee camp, and by 1980 arrived in the United States, where Khoa was born.

“The exodus is something every immigrant or refugee has to go through,” said Chinh.

“They were escaping Vietcong, running through the jungle, running away from pirates, my sister was shot at — it’s crazy,” said Khoa. “When I hear the stories, it’s insane. How are we even here? How is this even possible? It’s an incredible story.”

The brothers grew up in Westminster, in Little Saigon. Ten years ago they co-founded Ayotree.com, a language school management system, which has offices in Pasadena, Vietnam and Cambodia. Last year, they came up with the idea to develop a game.

They both agreed on building a game around Moses as homage to their childhood — and a nod to the present-day Syrian refugee crisis.

“My perspective was, Moses was a superhero that you can use for your video game that’s royalty-free,” Chinh said. “If you want Spiderman or Wolverine, it’s going to cost you — but God’s hero is free.”

Months after they created “Moses the Freedom Fighter,” President Trump signed an executive order that barred immigrants from several Muslim nations — including Syrian refugees — entry to the United States.

“When we made the game, we always intended to make it with this message,” said Chinh. “We just didn’t know that it would be so needed.”

The brothers insist that the game isn’t meant to be preachy or overly religious. Instead, they say, it’s a reminder of the ongoing oppression many groups face.

“This story isn’t about the people running the society — it’s about the underclass,” said Chinh. “Even at the age of 10 or 11, you can have a pretty good understanding of that. These people were also marginalized outsiders.”

Through “Moses the Freedom Fighter,” Chinh said he hopes a new generation will appreciate the same story that once inspired him as a child.

“What ‘The Ten Commandments’ did for me,I hope this does for another kid who’s in the same situation,” he said.

For more information, visit freemoses.org.

CAITLIN YOSHIKO KANDIL is a contributor to Times Community News.

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