Born in Maryland to Sudanese parents, Safia has lived in places as far ranging as Tanzania, Egypt, England, and Switzerland. At Gallatin, Safia developed the concentration Poetry as a Tool in Therapy, which linked her interests in creative writing, the creative arts therapies, and trauma studies. She the course Lyrics on Lockdown as particularly influential to her. “We created arts workshops that we then facilitated for a group of young men at the Island Academy, a high school for incarcerated youth on Riker’s Island. I’d been grappling with the notion of ‘art for art’s sake,’” Safia says, “and this class really gave me proof that the arts can be used to better the human condition.” Gallatin, she said, “is an environment where everyone is always growing, and it maintains a wonderful balance in being an academically stimulating yet always friendly.” While still an undergraduate, she published her first poetry chapbook, The Life and Times of Susie Knuckles (Well & Often Press, 2012).
A founding member of Slam NYU, Safia competed during the 2012 and 2013 national collegiate championships, and was a three-time member of and former coach for the DC Youth Slam Poetry team. She appeared on Season 3 of Verses and Flow on TV1, and was a finalist in the 2011 Women of the World Poetry Slam. Safia has been an active member of the New York and DC slam poetry scenes, where she has shared the stage with ?uestlove and Black Thought of The Roots, The Last Poets, Immortal Technique, Faith Evans, Sonia Sanchez, and the late Gil Scott-Heron. Safia is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor at Kinfolks Quarterly: A Journal of Black Expression, and is completing an MFA in Poetry at The New School. She is currently teaching at The International High School in Queens and working as a Writing and Curriculum Specialist at Harlem Children's Zone.
In 2016, Elhillo was named the winner of the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets for her manuscript, Asmarani. The prize is coordinated by the African Poetry Book Fund, with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s celebrated literary journal, Prairie Schooner.