Emi Mahmoud was just 12 when she did her first science project on climate change. She went on to study biology, graduating from Yale University, and she’s comfortable speaking the language of scientists. But it is poetry that she has chosen as the vehicle for her activism on behalf of refugees, women and girls, and now on the climate emergency.
“While I could speak to people in a scientific way, or a political way, I choose poetry in the end because I think it’s the easiest way to reach people and have them respond with their humanity,” she says.
Emi’s latest poem, which she will perform at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow this week, is a plea from Mother Earth to humanity to repair all the damage inflicted on her and spare future generations from climate chaos.
She wrote it after lengthy conversations with refugees living on the frontlines of climate change who are doing what they can to adapt to an increasingly harsh environment.
In Bangladesh, she spoke to Osman, a 21-year-old Rohingya refugee who is part of a team of volunteers working to prepare those living in sprawling camps for cyclones and flash flooding. When disaster strikes, he evacuates those who need help to move to higher ground.
“I asked him if there was a message he could send to world leaders, what would it be,” recalls Emi. “He said to me, ‘Please could you remind everyone that the climate crisis is not my problem alone to fix; it’s up to all of us.’”
She also talked to two Nigerian refugees involved in a project to reverse the deforestation that had left the camp where they lived in Cameroon stripped of shade and greenery.
“It was a really tough environment to live in, but they were able to bring forth a huge change in the quality of life in the camp,” says Emi.
The final leg of her discussions took her to Azraq camp in Jordan where she met Syrian refugees involved in bringing solar power to the camp and training other refugees on hydroponic methods for growing vegetables in the arid climate.
The message that kept emerging from these conversations, she says, is that refugees are innovating to adapt to the effects of climate change, but they need more support and resources to continue that work.
“If a flood is coming, or a hurricane, we’re all equal.”
As a former refugee from Sudan, Emi is well aware of the over-lapping vulnerabilities affecting people in many regions around the world.
In her poem, her 11-year-old self watches as her neighbour’s home crumble into flood waters in a country “already locked in turmoil”.
“People are seldom vulnerable in only one way,” she points out. “It’s really important to recognize that a lot of places that are hit by conflict, are hit just as hard by climate change.”
By performing her poem at COP, Emi hopes to bring the often-marginalized voices of refugees into the discussions.
“In the end, if a flood is coming, or a hurricane, we’re all equal,” she says. “We should be discussing this equally and affecting change in a way that includes everyone.”