How One Swimmer Is Changing Global Perceptions Of Refugees

Photo Courtesy: flickr

By Erin Keaveny, Swimming World College Intern

The road to the Olympic Games is a challenging one. Any athlete could crumble under the burden of rigorous training regimens, pressures to perform, and uncertainties about what the future holds. Still, it comes as little surprise that Yusra Mardini had the mental toughness to take on the challenges associated with training as an elite athlete.

The teen made her Olympic debut last summer in the 100-meter free and 100-meter fly, and the inspiring story of how she got there is far from typical. At her first games, Mardini competed under the Olympic flag for the first Refugee Olympic Team.

Mardini’s journey to the Olympics was more difficult than most. Her swimming career started in Syria, a scenario complicated when the the civil war broke out in 2011. In an interview, she commented “the war was hard; sometimes we couldn’t train because of the war. Or sometimes you had training but there was a bomb in the swimming pool.”

With the escalation of the conflict at home, Mardini, like millions of other Syrians, fled the country. She left Damascus and made her way into Turkey with her sister. From there, she headed to Greece by way of the Aegean Sea. A small boat, built to carry six passengers, had twenty refugees aboard. Somewhere in crossing the boat’s small motor broke, and the vessel started filling with water. All but three of the refugees aboard did not know how to swim.

Along with her sister and one other, Mardini jumped out of the boat and swam alongside it for over three hours, saving the lives of everyone aboard.

From Greece, Mardini and her sister traveled to Germany, where their parents would soon settle as well. She has since been training and living in Berlin. It was in Germany where Mardini would be named to the Refugee Olympic Team, and continue on to compete in Rio.

In anticipation of the Olympics Mardini told NBC news, “all of us in the water, you will forget who you are, what you did in your life, and what country you are from. You are a swimmer and whoever is next to you is a swimmer, too.”

Since the Olympics, Mardini has used the platform she gained as an Olympian to become an advocate for refugees across the globe. Since just last summer she has met with the Pope, world leaders, and become a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Refugee Agency.

In January, she was the youngest person to attend the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. The forum is held each year to discuss global issues with the goal of “improving the state of the world.”

After her experience at the forum, Mardini wrote an incredibly moving piece for the WEF blog. In it, she talks about her experience as a refugee, as well as what that label means to her.

She writes “It was only after I crossed the border I realized I’d lost more than my house and all my possessions. I’d lost my nationality, my identity, my name. Now I was refugee.” She continues to say “there is no shame in being a refugee if we remember who we are.”

Mardini calls others to join her in standing for “peace, decency, and dignity for all those fleeing violence.”

In Mardini’s statemnet for the UNHCR she proclaims “the most important thing in my life is swimming. Then speaking out and doing things to help refugees.” No small task, considering that more than 13.5 million people have been affected by the Syrian crisis alone.

At only 19 years old, she has accomplished more athletically and as a humanitarian advocate than one could hope achieve in a lifetime. Mardini has her sight set on another Olympics in Tokyo, but has made it her goal to change the global perception of what a refugee is. “I want to talk about it. You tell me what you have against refugees, and I can explain to you, I can show you even, how and why you’re wrong.”

Notify of

Welcome to our community. We invite you to join our discussion. Our community guidelines are simple: be respectful and constructive, keep on topic, and support your fellow commenters. Commenting signifies that you agree to our Terms of Use

1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
7 years ago

We are an Iraqi family, We left Iraq because of the conditions that have taken place in our country since 2004. We moved between Jordan and Lebanon and our last station is Egypt.
Our daughter is practicing swimming in one of the Egyptian clubs and she is very distinguished but she is not entitled to represent Egypt. She represented her club in many international tournaments such as the Dubai International Championship, won a bronze medal and the European Swimming Championships and participated in tournaments with her international school Choueifat
We have tried to contact the Iraqi Swimming Federation to recognize the results that she is getting in Egypt, And registration of its numbers with the Iraqi Swimming Federation
but the president of the Iraqi swimming federation did not agree, and they sent letters to us in a tone of threat and political discrimination, and accused us of being enemies of the Iraqi government because we We left the country ( I have the email and I can send it to you but it is in Arabic language ) , This is completely contrary to the rules and regulations of the FINA, which rejects political discrimination and also encourages the promotion of water sports, in particular encouraging girls and women to exercise

please help me and advise me on how I can help my daughter. My daughter gets very advanced positions in tournaments held in Egypt , She got gold medals in his last tournament and you can find her name in meetmobile application
She is 17 years old and her name is Fay salam Abbas

Awaiting your response with my respect
Thank you for your time

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x