Diving in: How swimming led Syrian refugee and Olympian Yusra Mardini to freedom

Yusra swimmer
6 min read
13 May, 2022
The New Arab Meets: Syrian Olympic swimmer, author and UN ambassador Yusra Mardini who is a voice for refugees worldwide. By sharing her own story of turmoil and triumph, Yusra hopes to inspire people worldwide that achieving your dreams is never out

You would think that pushing an overcrowded boat of terrified refugees for over three hours in Greek waters might put Yusra Mardini off swimming. But for the two-time Olympic competitor, getting back in the water was actually key to acclimatising when she reached Berlin as a refugee.

“Swimming helped me get comfortable in a country where I didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak the language. It was the only familiar thing I knew and made me feel safe,” Yusra tells The New Arab as we speak shortly after the paperback release of her memoir, Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian, My Story of Rescue, Hope, and Triumph. 

How swimming led Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini to freedom
Yusra competes in a heat for the women's 100m butterfly swimming event during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo on July 24, 2021 [Getty]

Now with new chapters that tell the “very dramatic” story of competing in Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo as part of the first-ever Olympic refugee team, Butterfly shares how Yusra escaped war in Syria to become an Olympic athlete, the youngest-ever Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, a TIME magazine ‘most influential teen’ and one of People magazine’s twenty-five women changing the world.

"Butterfly shares how Yusra escaped war in Syria to become an Olympic athlete, the youngest-ever Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, a TIME magazine ‘most influential teen’ and one of People magazine’s twenty-five women changing the world"

Yusra book
Yusra's inspirational memoir is out now

Yusra’s story starts in Damascus, Syria. Her dad, a keen swimmer and coach, encouraged both Yusra and her sister Sara in the pool from the age of three. While Yusra says that she used to hate swimming at first, crying in the bathroom because the water was too cold, she found a passion for the pool and ended up competing for her country at 14-years-old. 

But by 2015, the outbreak of war made staying in their hometown of Darayya too dangerous. Yusra fled with Sara to Turkey before boarding a boat that would smuggle them to Greece with eighteen other refugees.

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The boat, which should have held no more than seven people, started to sink in the Aegean Sea. Yusra, Sara and two other passengers made the quick decision to swim and push the boat to safety, spending hours in the water until everyone reached safety in Lesbos.

“The journey took us 25 days. When we got to Berlin, it was hard to believe that we’d lost everything and that we had to start from zero again,” Yusra shares. 

"Yusra realised that it didn’t matter what team she started for – she was achieving her dreams"

It’s a remarkable story – one that’s been made into the Netflix film The Swimmers – and for Yusra, the experience has changed the way she thinks about refugees. “Being a refugee is nothing to be ashamed of, but I wasn’t taught that in school or at home,” she says.

“People used to speak about refugees in a negative way around me, and when they announced the Olympic refugee team I didn’t know if I wanted to go. I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me or like I didn’t deserve my place.”

But after a conversation with her parents, Yusra realised that it didn’t matter what team she started for – she was achieving her dreams.

How swimming led Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini to freedom
Flag bearers Yusra Mardini and Tachlowini Gabriyesos of The Refugee Olympic Team during the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on July 23, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan [Getty]

“When I walked into the stadium for the first time at the opening ceremony, I saw that people really respected this team. We came from all around the world with such different stories, but the one thing we had in common was that we did not give up on our dreams. We send a powerful message of hope, and not just to refugees,” Yusra says. 

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Despite her initial concerns, Yusra felt pride walking under the refugee flag in Rio. Without access to the same training centres or funding as some of her American or European competitors, Yusra trained hard. “Every day I was picked up from school to swim, then I’d go to the gym, then I’d go home to do homework and sleep. That was my life, everything was about the sport.

How swimming led Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini to freedom
Winner of the Sports Award Yusra Mardini at the ABOUT YOU Awards 2021 at the 'Sports-Hub' in Hamburg on May 20, 2021, in Hamburg, Germany [Getty]

"Every athlete trains hard, but when I got to the Olympics, I had to realise that I’d been through a crazy year. I’d had to abandon my country, friends and family for the chance at a better life – I had to think about things athletes shouldn’t have to think about.”

"We came from all around the world with such different stories, but the one thing we had in common was that we did not give up on our dreams. We send a powerful message of hope, and not just to refugees"

It’s no surprise that Yusra says she didn’t feel mentally or physically ready to compete at the Olympics, but a scholarship propelled her to chase her dream. “At the time it was hard to think about anything but war, if I’d ever go back home and if my family were safe. It was a crazy thing to switch from that to thinking about who swims faster or gets a medal.”

While neither Rio nor Tokyo yielded medals for Yusra, she found something more important – her voice as a force for change. In 2017, Yusra was appointed a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador at the age of 19.

Speaking at events like the World Economic Forum and the Zero Summit, Yusra gives a voice to millions of refugees around the world.

How swimming led Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini to freedom
Syrian swimmer Mardini becomes UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador [Getty]

It’s work she’s hoping to continue with a new as-yet-unnamed foundation, which actually doesn’t aim to end the refugee crisis. “I want solutions to problems, not just saying that we hope things get better. The world has to accept that there will be a refugee crisis for many, many years, if not from war then from climate change, and we have to find systems to integrate those people and not just let them die.” 

"The world has to accept that there will be a refugee crisis for many, many years, if not from war then from climate change, and we have to find systems to integrate those people and not just let them die” 

As we continue to talk about refugees, the conversation turns to the traumatic events unfolding in Ukraine. We note how different the media reaction is to the crisis, and I ask if Yusra thinks the perception of refugees could be moving in a more sympathetic direction.

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“That’s a sad question because the answer is no. The media have been mentioning that Ukrainians have blue eyes, saying ‘they have the same cars like me and you! They have houses!’ Some people have even had the audacity to say ‘they’re not like Syrian or African refugees.’

"I can’t imagine what Ukrainian people are going through right now, and I hope they find homes and peace and that the war stops, but this is not the first war in history. I’m sad to see the media coverage of the situation, but happy to see everyone opening their doors. This is the way it should be for all refugees.”

I ask if Yusra ever gets tired of telling her story; she laughs but says “yes. The thing that keeps me going is that I’m one of the millions. It would be sad not to use my voice to help others, and show that refugees can get back on their feet.”

I, for one, am feeling inspired.

Isabella Silvers is a multi-award-winning editor and journalist, having written for Cosmopolitan, Women's Health, Refinery 29 and more. She also writes a weekly newsletter on mixed-race identity, titled Mixed Messages.

Follow her on Twitter: @izzymks