BUENOS AIRES: Refugees typically do not swim in the Olympic Games. Nor do they write autobiographies or pass time with prominent personalities, ranging from sheikhs, emirs and presidents to the Pope and Emma Watson. Yet while Yusra Mardini is not your typical refugee, she is also definitively your typical refugee.
In August 2015 and having witnessed far more atrocities than any 17 year-old ever should, Yusra and her sister Sara fled Syria with the objective of reaching Germany. In Turkey, they boarded a dinghy bound for Greece. It was designed for eight people, but the sisters were joined by 18 others hoping to start afresh. Within 20 minutes, the raft’s engine failed under the heavy human cargo and started to take on water. Yusra, Sara and two men lessened the load by entering the choppy sea, swimming and guiding the boat and ultimately saving all those onboard.
Within a year, Yusra was in Brazil competing at the Rio 2016 Games as part of the first Refugee Olympic Team (ROT), coming first in her heat to finish 41st overall. Her story captured the world’s imagination, prompting her to be named one of Time magazine’s 30 most influential teens of 2016, a sponsorship deal with Under Armour, a ghostwritten memoir called Butterfly, and — soon — a film by Oscar-nominated director Stephen Daltry.
While she has yet to finish reading the book — “I was like ‘this is my story, I don't want to read it again’” — she is excited about the movie, which could be released as early as next year.
“I think it's really important to share our stories with the world,” says Yusra, now 20. “For people to better understand what is happening. I'll be in the front row crying with the napkin drying my eyes.”
This juxtaposition of celebrity and refugee has at times made Yusra feel discomfort. Initially, she felt hurt at being “reduced to a single word,” but she has since reclaimed the label, announcing herself proud to represent the 68.5 million other refugees who are regular people with dreams and ambitions. She travels constantly — we meet in Argentina, but she arrived from New York, returned to Berlin, and is currently in California — spreading the message of sport for good and raising awareness of refugees.
“Wherever you go, there are people who are having chances in their lives and there are people who are not,” she says.
“When I am representing the Refugee Olympic Team and the athlete that I now am, I am remembering my home and all the people who are still there, have dreams but cannot achieve them. The people still in camps with no shelter; a tent full of snow. What if I was still there? What if I didn’t make it?”
Instead she was in Buenos Aires, appearing on stage alongside Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, and negotiating her way through a busy room in which she was approached by Prince Faisal of Jordan, keen to praise her fine work as the youngest Goodwill Ambassador at UNHCR — The Refugee Agency.
She appeared perfectly at ease moving in such circles. She has addressed the UN General Assembly, met Pope Francis, President Obama, Angelina Jolie and many more. She was quick, however, to dismiss the calm exterior.
“You know, to be honest, when I meet them it's super unreal,” she says brightly. “The next day, when I'm back to my normal life, I'm like ‘Did this stuff really happen or did I imagine it?’ But it's great meeting inspiring people and personalities. They all give you advice and also, for example, Emma (Watson) or President Obama, they ask about really normal stuff. It's great that you can see all that happening and be involved. It's special… but completely unreal.”
With such a chaotic, cross-continental schedule, it would be understandable if her swimming career had been cast aside. Yet swimming has been her life since infancy: Her father Ezzat was a swimming coach, she represented Syria at the short-course World Championships in 2012, and the sport literally saved her life. So, instead, she rises earlier, reschedules training when necessary, and continues to dream of Tokyo 2020.
“I am lucky that my coaches understand it,” she said, adding that she does not yet know under whose flag she would compete: Syria, Germany or ROT. “When I miss training they put it in different weeks, so we make it work, but it is very difficult to balance. If I take my current level, I can’t say I could win a medal in Tokyo, but I want to be there. I work as hard as I can to improve and get good results, so we’ll see how far I can go.”
Meanwhile, Yusra — who has said previously she cannot discuss the case in order not to jeopardise future proceedings — is focusing her own energies on positivity.
“Refugees are human beings who can change their lives through sport,” she says. “These people can do something, they just need a chance. We fled violence seeking another chance in life, so I am happy to see there are good and positive people in this world. A lot of people are volunteering and they are helping us. Together we want to change something in this world.”