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.