The 21 Million

Written and submitted by Emtithal Mahmoud

This guest blog post is by Emtithal “Emi” Mahmoud, the reigning 2015 Individual World Poetry Slam Champion and 2016 Woman of the World Co-champion. Emi spoke on the TEDMED stage in 2016, and you can watch her talk here.


My grandmother, Nammah, never learned to read or write—where we came from, girls were forbidden from doing so. In May of 2016 I, her granddaughter, surrounded by friends and family, graduated from Yale University and closed the ceremony with something I, a woman, had written. But a number of factors had to fall in place before my family was able to reach that point.

Nearly 19 years before then, my mother, father, younger sister, and I had boarded a plane in Yemen, green cards in hand, after having left Sudan for safety well before. At the time, my father, a surgeon, and my mother, a medical lab technician, were exactly the kind of people history likes to laud as proof that immigrants are capable of incredible things—testaments to the triumph of humanity in the face of adversity. However, this valuing inherently comes at a cost, as if achievements represent human worth.

2 IDP women

Photo credit: Afaq Mahmoud, 2017
Two internationally displaced people speaking on women’s rights and how the war affects women, specifically focusing on the importance of education. Many women in the camps understand the necessity of their role in finding a way forward. Their names have been excluded for protection.

Today especially, with more than 65 million people displaced worldwide, 21 million of whom have become refugees, we often point to the attractive accomplishments of a select few as proof that refugees are worth saving and reduce the rest to a series of numbers.

What this focus on value or inherent worth suggests: in today’s world, if I and my grandmother were both contemporaries seeking refuge, I would be deemed worth the humanity, and she, a woman ultimately responsible for my entire existence, would not. What’s more, with recent policies, my family and I—even with the credentials that once could save us—would have been turned away once for Sudan, the country we were born in, and again for Yemen, the country in which we initially sought refuge. Together, our entire family would be seen as another component of the 21 million.

Loss is deeply personal, and yet we see it on a global scale almost every day. When this happens we become desensitized. Reversing that process and putting people back in front of the numbers is incredibly difficult, but incredibly necessary. This is precisely why I and we must speak of the individuals entrenched in the conflicts front and center in our world and not of their future success or earning potential. The most valuable thing we will miss is human life. There’s still so much to be done for all my sisters who will not have the same opportunity to prosper, or on even the most basic level, to survive.

Young student at Zamzam refugee camp school

Photo credit: Afaq Mahmoud, 2017
A young student at Zamzam refugee camp school in Northern Darfur. The photo was taken two weeks after an attack on Zamzam camp in 2015. In the absence of resources, the school depends solely on the work of volunteers, and its students and teachers live in constant fear of impending attacks.

I am often asked how it is that I stand by my identity and why I write and speak with conviction, despite the ramifications that may come with being a young, black, American, Afro-Arab, Muslim, woman. I often answer that it is because of my grandmother and the sacrifices that she and people like her have made and continue to make. I speak because my grandmother did not get the chance to and I am not alone. Earlier this year I joined the How to Do Good speaking tour with a series of incredible philanthropists and activists (including Fredi Kanouté, former West Ham United, Tottenham Hotspur and Sevilla striker and founder of Sakina Children’s Village, and Dr. Rouba Mhaissen, an economist and activist featured in Forbes 2017 30 Under 30, and the founder of SAWA) and we’ve made it our mission to inspire positive action. This initiative, and so many like it, is exactly what we need to reignite empathy in a world that seems to have lost it.

Infant receiving medical treatment

Photo credit: Afaq Mahmoud, 2017
An infant receiving treatment at Zamzam refugee camp in Northern Darfur. The medicine she requires isn’t readily available in the remote region.

I believe that when we are spoken to politically, we are compelled to respond politically, when we are spoken to academically, we are compelled to respond academically, when we are spoken to with hate, we are compelled to respond with hate; but when we are spoken to as human beings, we are compelled to respond with our humanity. In this global moment with endless pressing questions and not many daring to answer them, my challenge to you is to respond with your own humanity.

Visit Emi on Facebook to learn more about her latest work.

Healing Trauma in Unexpected Ways

Many of us have dealt with, or are dealing with, some form of trauma. This year at TEDMED, three Speakers will take the stage to share how they are helping relieve the effects of trauma using what some view as non-traditional healing methods. Whether it’s examining how marijuana can treat neuropathic pain, using guided imagery and drawing to heal psychological trauma, or using spoken word to heal the emotional wounds of war, the TEDMED Speakers described below are passionate about relieving suffering and improving lives.

Image provided by David Casarrett.

Image provided by David Casarett.

One of those speakers is David Casarett, the director of the Duke Center for Palliative Care, whose recent work has focused on medical marijuana – something David originally thought was a joke. But after researching the topic for his book, Stoned: A Doctor’s Case for Medical Marijuana, he realized that for many patients, there’s nothing funny about it. David spoke to people who use marijuana – often obtained from specialized clinics – to treat seizures, post-traumatic stress disorder, and neuropathic pain (caused by nerve damage), which is notoriously difficult to treat. David sees potential not only in the use of medical marijuana to treat certain ailments but also in the way medical marijuana dispensaries have figured out how to deliver effective patient-centered care.

James Gordon, a Harvard-educated psychiatrist, has spent much of his life listening to and lessening the suffering of those who have experienced severe trauma – from runaway homeless children, to people living with life-threatening illnesses, to survivors of Civil War. In 1991, he founded the Center for Mind-Body Medicine (CMBM) with the goal of creating a “worldwide healing community where people use practical mind-body skills to move through suffering and confusion toward a more hopeful, healthy, and confident future.” CMBM describes mind-body medicine as the use of meditation; guided imagery; yoga and exercise; self-expression in words, drawing, and movement; and, small group support to deal with the trauma and stress we all experience.

cmbm-gaza-children-ptsd-feature

Photo credit: The Center for Mind-Body Medicine.

Jim and his team started their work in the US teaching mind-body medicine to health professionals so they could integrate it into their practices in hospitals and clinics, schools and community-based programs. Soon Jim turned his attention to some of the darkest and most troubled places on the planet. CMBM began working in Mozambique, South Africa and Bosnia, and in 1998 – when war broke out in Kosovo –  Jim traveled there. Ultimately, CMBM’s faculty trained 600 Kosovar health workers and educators and the CMBM program became a pillar of the nation-wide Community Mental Health system. In the years since, Jim and his CMBM team of 160 have created what is likely the world’s largest, most effective program for population-wide psychological healing. The local teams they have trained have worked successfully with more than 200,000 children and adults in Gaza and Israel and with tens of thousands more in Southern Louisiana after hurricane Katrina, in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, with US veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and long-traumatized American Indians on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Peer-reviewed scientific research has demonstrated that these programs reduce post traumatic stress disorder by 80%. Everywhere they are offered, they enhance resiliency and bring healing and hope. Articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post and a 60 Minutes segment which features Jim’s work with war-traumatized children in Gaza and Israel convey the life-transforming power of his work, and his book, Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression shows how these techniques can be used by all of us who deal with our own forms of trauma and stress.

Image provided by Emi Mahmoud.

Image provided by Emi Mahmoud.

Another Speaker at TEDMED this year, Emi Mahmoud, uses self expression in words to help herself and others heal the traumatic wounds of war. Born in Sudan, Emi grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from Yale University earlier this year, where she studied Anthropology and Molecular Biology. It was at Yale that she began to excel in Spoken Word Poetry – a form of oral poetry performed live on stage – and in 2015, she won the Individual World Poetry Slam competition. Her poetry and performances are powerful, heartfelt and heart wrenching forms of expression, many of which are focused on Sudan and its people – often members her own family – who have become victims of the Civil War and famine that have plagued the country for decades. Addressing the fears and trauma of life in Sudan, and life as a refugee, is something Emi is passionate about. She has worked with the Yale Refugee Project and the Darfur Alert Coalition to help raise awareness about genocide worldwide, she teaches spoken word poetry to young people around the world as a way to empower and help them deal with the trauma and hardships they face, and she advocates for global education – in September of this year she delivered a powerful spoken word performance at the launch of the UN’s Report by the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity. Her spoken word poetry is most powerfully felt when seen, so watch more of her performances via the links on her TEDMED page, and prepare to be moved.

We are honored to have these three compassionate, impressive, and inspiring speakers at TEDMED this year. Join us in Palm Springs to hear their talks live!