The young woman who swam for her life to steer a sinking refugee boat in the open sea, is competing in the Olympics and is the youngest UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador.
Twenty-nine athletes on the Refugee Olympic Team are competing in 12 disciplines at the Tokyo Olympics this summer. One of them is Yusra Mardini, a young Syrian swimmer whose journey to Japan isn’t just a story of success, but also a story of hope.
In 2015, four years after the war in Syria began, Mardini knew she had no choice but to leave her home in Darayya in suburban Damascus, for good.
Her father, Ezzat, a swimmer who competed on Syria’s national swimming team, and her psychotherapist mother, on the other hand, had long avoided fleeing the country, despite the raging war - until they couldn’t resist the idea anymore.
Amid daily shootouts, it became impossible for Yusra and her sister to reach the pool where her father trained them. The sense of urgency became glaringly apparent when her father was arrested and beaten by regime soldiers and her house, where they once lived a comfortable life, was flattened. Her family decided that Yusra, 17 at the time, and her sister Sarah could leave, despite the risks it posed. It was impossible to arrange the escape of the whole family, but their relatives could get them to Turkey.
Yusra’s strength and fitness drained during the period she couldn’t swim, but years of training two hours a day came in handy when faced with a crowded boat that the smugglers provided. Her father trained them to be the best swimmers “on earth. Ever.” But before they could prove that to the rest of the world, their swimming was tested in the fight to save 18 refugees, as well as themselves.
Around 15 minutes after leaving the Turkish coast on a dinghy the smugglers provided, the boat’s engine seized. The waves were raging and the boat was sinking despite everyone tossing anything they could, overboard. The boat was designed to hold seven but had been stuffed with 20 people instead.
Yusra and Sarah, then, climbed out into the cold water to help keep the boat steady. They swam with brief breaks to rest for three hours in the open sea, as they pulled the boat with rope towards the Greek island of Lesbos. Two other refugees also helped them.
“We used our legs and one arm each—we held the rope with the other and kicked and kicked. Waves kept coming and hitting me in the eye,” Yusra told Vogue in an interview.
“That was the hardest part—the stinging of the salt water. But what were we going to do? Let everyone drown? We were pulling and swimming for their lives.”
Once they stepped foot on land again, they marched from Greece to Germany, by foot. Yusra and Sarah soon became aware of how naive they had been to think that the little money they carried from Syria would be enough to get them to Europe, thanks to the extra complications they faced. Before they had a place to call home again, they braved being stuck inside a Budapest train station and spent six months in a refugee camp in Berlin. That’s where they heard about a swimming club training young athletes: Wasserfreunde Spandau 04, where a trainer helped them to get papers to stay in Germany.
Yusra dreamt of becoming a pilot before her father started to train her as a swimmer. She is now the youngest ever Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, the UN Refugee agency. The determined young woman says she represents more than Syria.
Her sister, Sarah, who entered the world of swimming earlier than Yusra, and won some medals back in Syria too, is as ambitious as she is, but on a slightly different path.
“I decided to go back to Lesbos, where my life extremely changed,” she said speaking at the One Young World summit on July 23. Saving refugees in danger, as she once did on her perilous journey to Europe, is now Sarah’s goal but it also ended up getting her arrested.
She’s now working with ERCI, a Greek nongovernmental organisation, helping Arabic refugees to communicate with rescuers, participating in nightwatches where they might spot a sinking boat. While Yusra made headlines when she first participated in the Olympics in 2016, Sarah made headlines when Greek police kept her behind bars for four months on charges of people-smuggling. “I will keep calling out,” she said in a recent instagram post shared with the hashtag: #searescueisnotacrime.
Yusra meanwhile carries the flag of the Refugee Olympic Team. She won’t progress to the women’s 100 metres butterfly semi-finals but her message is no less important as she focuses on her next goal.
“I am sending a message of hope to all of them doing what I love, also showing the world that refugees won’t give up easy and will keep on dreaming even after going through tough journeys,” she said.