DUBLIN, Ohio — One of the highlights of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was Yusra Mardini’s story: the participation of refugee, who became an Olympian whose skill was born from necessity. After escaping war-torn Syria six years ago, Mardini competed in the Olympics to show refugees everywhere that they too can accomplish their dreams. Yusra Mardini’s story serves as a source of inspiration, bringing hope to refugees worldwide.
Mardini fled Syria in 2015, four years after the Syrian civil war tore apart the only home she had ever known. Ezzat, her father, was a nationally ranked swimmer in Syria who trained her and her sister at a local pool. When it became too dangerous to visit the pool due to bombings and shootings, she and her sister could no longer practice. Soon after, when soldiers annihilated her family home and brutally attacked her father, she knew it would not be safe to remain in Syria.
Despite fear and the risks involved, she left her home in Damascus at the young age of 17 with her sister, Sarah. Her parents lacked the resources and time necessary to arrange the entire family’s escape. Exiting Syria was a notoriously difficult feat, many who could afford to escape still had to face the unsafe conditions to migrate to a peaceful country. In the face of these terrifying risks, Mardini says on her website, “Being a refugee is not a choice. Our choice is to die at home or risk death trying to escape.” She chose the latter, doing everything in her power to get to Turkey safely.
Swimming to Safety
The journey began when Mardini and her sister were smuggled onto a Turkish boat made to transport seven people but instead carrying 20. This extra weight and a failing motor caused the boat to sink only a few minutes after departing, plunging Mardini, her sister and the other 18 passengers into the raging ocean. The swimming lessons her father had given her and her sister proved a valuable asset. Mardini, her sister and a couple of other passengers kept the boat steady and pulled it for more than three hours until the boat reached safety. When recounting her story to Vogue, Mardini explains, “That was the hardest part — the stinging of the saltwater. But what were we going to do? Let everyone drown? We were pulling and swimming for their lives.”
The refugees finally reached safety in the form of the Greek island, Lesbos. Determined to reach Germany, the sisters marched for days on foot with the other passengers. When they reached Germany, the sisters realized their struggles were far from over. The minuscule amount of money they had brought from Syria was nowhere near enough to find them housing. From living in a train station to finding shelter in a Berlin refugee camp for six months, the sisters moved around before finding a permanent place to call home. In the refugee camp, they joined a swimming team called Wasserfreunde Spandau 04. Sarah returned to Lesbos to help rescue more refugees facing similar conditions, later getting arrested on the grounds of smuggling, while Mardini went on to further her swimming skills.
Awards and Recognitions
Yusra’s hard work paid off when she competed with the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) at the Rio Olympics in 2016. She then returned in 2021 with the ROT for the Tokyo Olympics, this time as a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Goodwill Ambassador. She received the title in April 2017, shortly after her first Olympic appearance. Her story continues to inspire millions of people through her autobiography, Butterfly, and her upcoming Netflix movie, “The Swimmers.” She has since received many awards, met with queens and presidents and has also spoken on world stages about her experience and the current refugee crisis in Syria.
The Situation in Syria
The ongoing flood of refugees from Syria remains the largest refugee crisis in history. Of the 13.5 million Syrians displaced, 6.8 million of them are refugees who have left their home country. Displacement has affected more than 50% of the country, with many citizens forced to move within Syria or escape Syria entirely. Children make up about 50% of the Syrians who need shelter and safety. They do not have access to basic necessities such as clean water and medical attention as most buildings and wells were destroyed by bombings.
Overall, close to 11.1 million Syrians need urgent humanitarian aid. Along with physical damage, mental health and education have taken an enormous hit as children cannot attend classes and many cannot safely leave their homes. Lack of resources, financial strain and unsafe conditions continue to worsen the already dire situation Syrians face. Many girls who cannot attend school face the threat of child marriage, an all too common fate in struggling countries.
Inspiring Refugees Worldwide
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it a dire impact as many who were on the brink of starvation were plunged into extreme poverty. The World Bank Group and U.N. Refugee Agency reported that as of 2020, at least 1.1 million Syrians have become impoverished and displaced due to the pandemic. Overall, more than 80% of Syrians live in extreme poverty and the numbers continue to increase with time.
Yusra Mardini’s Story story remains an inspiration to the millions of Syrian children looking up to a refugee Olympian who has overcome their challenges to rise up as a champion.
– Mariam Abaza