Emtithal Mahmoud: Leveraging On The Power Of Poetry To Ignite Change

“Poetry in itself is very powerful and just by nature of expressing ourselves through this form, we’re seizing that agency we might not have had before.”

Former refugee turned world champion poet, and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, Sudanese-American, Emtithal “Emi” Mahmoud, at just 29 has been dubbed one of the most inspiring women.

Passionate about change, as an activist, using the power of words, she continuously gives voice to global issues, most especially speaking on the cause of refugees as well as championing the rights of the underprivileged as she strives “to leave the world a little bit better than the way I found it”.

She has worked with President Obama, the UNHCR, the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, The Institute for Inclusive Security, Gates Grand Challenges, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and more.

At age 19, she co-founded Sickle Cell Nepal, a grassroots research initiative aimed at combating Sickle Cell Disease on the ground in Kathmandu and Nepalgunj, Nepal.

Mahmoud successfully helmed Sudan’s first inclusive civilian peace talks in 2017 as part of her One Girl Walk and Dreams for Peace Initiative and not relenting, the following year, she embarked on a 1,000-kilometre peace walk from Darfur to Khartoum for 30 days, and was joined by thousands of people.

The activist and poet has notably thrown her weight behind the UN Refugee Agency – UNHCR. She was appointed as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador in June 2018 after giving the opening performance at TEDxKakumaCamp, the first-ever TEDx event held in a refugee camp.

Mahmoud first gained the international spotlight after winning the 2015 Individual World Poetry Slam Championship in Washington DC with her poem Mama, which she wrote just a few hours prior. It was inspired by the death of her grandmother. She has since won the 2015 Individual World Poetry Slam championship and has further gone on to feature as one of the Harper’s Bazaar New Change-makers of 2020 as well as was named one of BBC’s 100 Most Inspirational Women.

Born in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum in 1993, at age 5 Mahmoud emigrated to Philadelphia in the US with her parents but briefly returned a few years later when her mother and father were protesting against the government, which had stopped paying teachers.

Her journey into activism started at the tender age of 10 when she was inspired to put on paper the genocide which rocked her native home of Sudan, she titled it – ‘War in Darfur’.

“I use my words to raise the alarm on the conflicts of our time…in the hopes that someone might hear something that moves them,” says Emi.

Since graduating from Yale in 2016 she has since commanded attention, gracing stages at high profile events on the world stage including engaging Barack Obama on his visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore. Mahmoud has graced the UN General Assembly, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Forbes 30 Under 30 and the Women’s Forum in Paris, where she is often the youngest person in the room. “Being a Black woman, being a former refugee, being a Muslim woman, being young, a poet, all those different things can be a little bit disarming because people will constantly underestimate you,” she says, “and in those moments, you’re able to surprise them in a really good way.”

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