Big Story 10

Slam poet from Sudan's Darfur puts a human face on refugee numbers

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Standing on stage, Emtithal “Emi” Mahmoud pours out brutal tales of death, war and family trauma that might not be expected from a glance at the cheerful 24-year-old U.S.-college graduate.

Poet and activist, Emi Mahmoud, performs at Trust Conference in London, United Kingdom on November 15, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation / Claudio Accheri

But Mahmoud, who fled war in Sudan’s Darfur region as a child, said she uses her poetry to stir people and put a human face on crises that many feel are too remote to relate to.

“What I try to do, by sharing what I’ve seen and what my family’s been through, is to make people more sensitized to the humanity behind it,” Mahmoud said in an interview at the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual two-day Trust Conference.

“It may seem like a no-brainer, but it isn’t.”

Sudan has been at war with rebel groups in its western Darfur region since 2003. The United Nations says 300,000 people have died and millions have been uprooted in the conflict.

While Mahmoud’s parents fled to Yemen and on to the United States, family members who stayed in Darfur have died, she said.

Growing up as a Muslim woman and an immigrant in Philadelphia, she discovered at a young age that poetry allowed her to articulate her experiences and heal, said Mahmoud, who won the 2015 Individual World Poetry Slam.

After graduating from Yale University, Mahmoud said she has made it her mission to “put people back in front of the numbers”, referring to the dehumanization of people fleeing conflict all over the world.

“Eleven days ago, two bullets crossed off two more faces from my family tree,” Mahmoud said in a poem about two young cousins killed in Sudan that she performed at the conference.

“I want to be able to look at a sunrise and not see my entire family falling to pieces.”

She has returned to Sudan to work on conflict resolution and traveled to Greece to advocate for Syrian refugees and thousands of others who undertake treacherous journeys in hope of finding a better life in Europe.

(This version of the story refiles to fix typo in para 2)