A Conversation with UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Emi Mahmoud


Written by Sara Dada

Sudanese-American slam poet Emi Mahmoud has supported UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency’s work and advocacy since 2016. Born in Khartoum, Sudan, before later moving to Yemen and the United States, Emi has used her talents and platform to raise awareness on the refugee cause. She was appointed as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador in June 2018 and has travelled extensively to witness UNHCR’s frontline work in the field.

1) When did you first become involved in advocacy?

I was about 10 years old when I first learned about the Darfur genocide. I walked in on my parents crying. When I asked them what was going on, my mom struggled with the language that it takes to explain something of that magnitude to a 10 year old. The feeling really stuck with me. In that moment, my parents felt incredibly alone and I felt isolated too. That feeling of isolation can be silencing.

As a little kid, all I knew how to do was write. So I started writing. I wrote these rhyming couplets about Darfur, about what I understood and what I was struggling to understand, what I remembered from my visits there. All of the feelings that were in me, I put them on the paper. That was the first step. The first step was coping with those emotions and getting them out and understanding that there’s something driving me.

The second thing was figuring out what to do with it. When I showed it [the poem] to my parents, they asked me to come speak at this neighbourhood church in Philadelphia. It was early on when people didn’t know what was going on and they wanted to hear about Darfur. I remember this was the first time I got involved in advocacy, but in that moment I didn’t know that it was called advocacy. For me, it was speaking up. It was using my voice when I knew that my cousins who I left behind didn’t have that voice. For me, it was doing what I could with what I had. That to me was advocacy, but I didn’t know that it was called advocacy until many years later.

2) How did you first become involved with advocacy for UNHCR?

I first got involved with advocacy through UNHCR after they emailed me. The Nansen Refugee Award honours those who dedicate their lives and work to bettering the lives of refugees and UNHCR asked me to contribute to the award ceremony. It was just a very simple question and I quickly said that I would love to. It turned into this trip to Greece and my first mission in Lesvos. I soon realized that I was somebody who was coming from that sort of background, that conflict, and standing on the other side of it now trying to talk to people across time. It felt like I was talking to my family or my people when they were standing in a different time in that type of crisis. It felt incredibly harrowing to reach through that. I wasn’t just reaching to them, I was reaching through my history, through the history of so many people who came before me.

That’s the thing that’s incredible about these crises, which are the biggest crises of our times. They’re becoming these universal experiences that people are having. That’s scary because in the world, everyone knows the sun rises in the east and sets in the west; now it’s becoming everybody knows what it’s like to be a refugee or a migrant or to lose their home or to not know what tomorrow is going to be like. That’s becoming a universal experience. I really liked being a part of the people who are trying to reel that back, to make it harder for those things to be universal. Imagine being able to make it so that the fact that the sky is blue and oceans are made of water are the universal experiences and not “Yeah, I left my home too.”

3) As an ambassador for UNHCR, how are you working to help refugees and tackle the ongoing crisis?

The amazing thing about this new role that I have is that I’ve spent two years developing a really deep relationship with UNHCR. I have witnessed some of the frontline work and advocated with them on some of the biggest stages, places that people like me don’t usually have access to. As an ambassador, I am trying to grow that space and access so then more people’s voices can be heard. We are living in a time where everyone is contributing their voice to the pot. You see more extreme views on every side, more nuanced views, younger people, older people. You see everyone throwing their voices into the mix. As an ambassador, I get to make sure that refugee voices are in that mix too.

4) Are there any special projects you’re working on at the moment?

One of the projects I’m super excited about doing with UHCR is this upcoming Girl Up summit. It’s going to be this incredible meeting of minds with people who are wanting to empower women and girls around the world. We’re also going to talk about refugees because it’s important to talk about women’s rights, but if we’re not talking about refugee women’s rights too, then we’re not completing the whole picture. Every person should feel like they’re part of this whole thing and that’s the beauty of this next event.

A project that we just completed with UNHCR was a collaboration with Now This at TEDxKakuma – the first ever TED talk in a refugee camp. It was beautiful because it was a completely different medium. And we were using it to reach people where they least expect to be reached. It felt really good to be able to talk to people in my age group because young people are just as much a part of this as everybody else. We have to remember that half of the people who leave home are kids. If we’re not thinking about them and the world we’re creating moving forward, then we aren’t completing our job.

Other projects that I’m working on include my first book Sisters’ Entrancewhich was just published. It is a collection of poetry that has a lot to do with people in crisis because that’s the world that I come from. What’s incredible about it is that there are other collaborative books coming out with different people in the works. Ink Knows no Borders is one and I’m working on a few poems and an afterword for different projects. I am also contributing to Feminists Don’t Wear Pink by Scarlett Curtis. It’s another anthology that’s trying to put more voices in the pot. And that’s what’s so exciting about all of this.

5) What is your advice for young people who want to pursue a career in advocacy?

For young people who want to pursue a career in advocacy, don’t. You have to understand that there’s no such thing as a career in advocacy. Advocacy has to be a part of everything that we do. I’m an artist with a background in global health. And I advocate for the things that matter. There are people who are musicians, lawyers, doctors, engineers, cooks – everywhere people try to bring advocacy into their work. That’s what we need to do. We need to make it second nature.

So how can you pursue a career in advocacy? Make it a part of everything that you’re already doing. There are human rights, but there are also human responsibilities. One of our responsibilities is to give voice to people who don’t have the same kind of access that we do, who don’t have the same kind of platforms that we do. Because if we’re all lifting each other up, then I don’t think we can go wrong.

Photo credit: © UNHCR/Arielle Moncure