Young poet Emtithal Mahmoud won the International World Poetry Slam Championship in Washington, DC last year, and was also named one of the BBC’s 100 Women of 2015. This month, she met with President Barack Obama on his visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore. Besides being an acclaimed poet, she’s also an activist and biology student at Yale, specializing in global health.
Born in Darfur, Sudan, Mahmoud’s family moved to Yemen when she was a baby, later settling in Philadelphia. But Darfur never left the young poet’s soul. When she was a child, she went back for an extended visit with family. At the time, the government stopped paying teachers and her parents joined a protest movement.
“At a protest in the US, you might find tear gas or you might find police with barricades,” she says. “In Darfur, the soldiers shoot into the crowds and they throw grenades and people die.”
Mahmoud won the DC poetry slam competition with a poem called “Mama.” It’s a tribute to her mother and grandmother, who passed away just as the competition was starting, and references her mother’s involvement in the Darfur protest:
“When I was 7, she cradled bullets in the billows of her robes.
That same night, she taught me how to get gunpowder out of cotton with a bar of soap.
Years later when the soldiers held her at gunpoint and asked her who she was
She said, I am a daughter of Adam, I am a woman, who the hell are you?”
Mahmoud tells PRI, “I’m the kid from Darfur, but I’m also a kid from Philly. That intersection links me to a lot of people. And at the same time, I’m a kid that’s graduating from Yale in a few months. That gives me a platform that a lot of people who have gone through what I have don’t have. It’s very empowering.”