Philly high school standout, a child of Darfur, wins prestigious scholarship

Posted: May 02, 2011

What would you do if your town was bombed

And everything near it was gone?

What would you do if you were cold and alone,

And cast to the streets without a home?

 Such questions haunt Emtithal "Emi" Mahmoud, who wrote these lines as part of a poem about her homeland, Darfur, which her family fled when she was 4.

The straight-A student at Philadelphia's Julia R. Masterman High School has for years been an activist, speaking out at rallies and writing poetry about the violent crisis in western Sudan, where relatives of hers have been killed.

Mahmoud, 17, is also a musician; she plays the viola. But above all else, she said, science has been her most passionate interest.

"Ever since I was growing up, I was interested in life," Mahmoud said. "That led to biology, and that led to medicine. I love research and I also love people, so I want to become a research physician."

Mahmoud took a giant step toward that dream last month when she was named one of five recipients nationwide of the prestigious Leonore Annenberg Scholarship.

The scholarship covers all costs at any college in the country, said Gail Levin, director of the program, which is named for the late wife of publisher and philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg and is based at the University of Pennsylvania.

It can be worth nearly $250,000 over four years, said Levin, covering tuition, room and board, mandatory fees, medical insurance, books, "a modest stipend for living expenses," travel support, and a laptop computer.

Mahmoud, a junior, said her top college choices were Harvard, Princeton, and Johns Hopkins Universities.

"Most of our students go to very fine research institutions, excellent colleges," Levin said. "We expect them to be able to measure up to that level of work.

"We provide them the scholarship in the junior year because it gives them a full landscape of institutions from which they can decide to apply."

Mahmoud is the oldest of five children living with her family in Northeast Philadelphia. Her parents were doctors in Sudan.

Her mother, Amira Tibin, is a lab technician at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital; her father, Ibrahim Mahmoud, is abroad this year, studying for a medical specialization in Belgrade, Serbia.

"I grew up with a lot of doctors in the house," their daughter said, "so we talked a lot about science."

Mahmoud was also a first-place winner in the Delaware Valley Science Fair this year. Her project used mice eggs to examine the effects of arsenic on the human reproductive system.

"Even in the United States there is a lot of arsenic contamination in the water, air, and food, and water is the most common route of exposure," she said, adding that such contamination "is a really bad problem. It's been linked to spontaneous abortion."

Her interest in the subject developed last year at the Penn Academy for Reproductive Sciences, a program at Penn that offers girls workshops on reproductive science and women's health.

She said Monica Mainigi, a physician and researcher at Penn, had mentored her on the project.

Joan Mazzotti, executive director of Philadelphia Futures, which helps prepare students for college and assists in finding students for the Annenberg scholarships, said Mahmoud had been selected from five or six "very strong applicants" in Philadelphia. "They were all wonderful."

One of Mahmoud's interests has been speaking out about the crisis in Darfur, a matter her family knows firsthand. It was forced to leave because of its outspokenness about the conflict as it was brewing, she said.

The civil war and genocide led to the deaths of as many as 300,000 people, mainly due to illness and starvation. About 2.7 million fled their homes, according to United Nations estimates. The Sudanese government has put the death toll at about 100,000.

"When I was in sixth grade I became interested in [Darfur] because my parents were crying much of the time," said Mahmoud, who became teary herself during an interview in which she talked about relatives killed in the crisis.

At rallies in Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, she has addressed crowds and read her poems about Darfur.

"My whole family is from Darfur," Mahmoud said. "We used to get calls saying, 'Uncle This died and Aunt That died.' Darfur has had a really big impact on my life."

Lou Ann Merkle, cofounder of the Philadelphia advocacy group Darfur Alert Coalition, which opposes the violence in Darfur, said Mahmoud had helped increase interest in the crisis.

"Emi has helped raise awareness around the issue and moved many people. . . . She's gotten plenty of standing ovations," Merkle said.

Claudia Gard, a guidance counselor at Masterman, lauded Mahmoud.

"Emi not only has enthusiasm for learning, she is extremely personable and quite articulate. . . . Her thirst for knowledge makes her quite a unique individual," Gard said.

Hearing about the scholarship was an emotional moment for the family. "My parents were really anxious," Mahmoud said.

"When they found out that I won it, they both cried. All the problems they had seemed like they were suddenly lifted."

Contact staff writer Vernon Clark at 215-854-5717 or


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