From Refugee to Olympian: an Interview with Yusra MardiniFeatured

Yusra Mardini grew up in Damascus, Syria. She started swimming when she was just 5 years old, encouraged by her father, who became her first coach. She excelled at the sport and went on to swim on the Syrian national team. Representing her country at the Olympic Games had been a lifelong dream for her, but the civil war broke out in Syria when she was 14. Hopeful for peace, Yusra and her family remained in Syria for a few years afterwards, but the conflict only worsened. Yusra and her older sister, Sara, realized that they needed to leave the country as there was no longer a future for them there. Her parents were hesitant to leave or let Yusra and Sara go, especially given the immense risk. In the end, they conceded, and the sisters left Syria in August 2015. They first traveled to Istanbul, and then from the Turkish coast, boarded an overcrowded dinghy to get to the Greek island of Lesvos. But 15 minutes into their trip, the dinghy’s engine died. Yusra and Sara (both trained swimmers) and 2 others passengers jumped into the sea, where they kept the boat from capsizing for 3.5 hours. Finally, they led the dinghy and all those on board safely to shore. Yusra ultimately made it to Germany, where was granted asylum and now lives. Her family, including her parents and younger sister, later left Syria as well and joined her there. She swam on the refugee team at the Rio 2016 summer olympics and is currently training for the Tokyo 2020 summer olympics. Outside of swimming, Yusra is the youngest ever Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She also recently published her book, Butterfly: from Refugee to Olympian, and is working with Working Title to create a movie on her story. Yusra and I discussed her inspiration, vision, courage, and advice for aspiring global female leaders. Where does your dedication to swimming come from? I started swimming when I was 5 and stopped briefly for a year when I was 15. The war in Syria made it too dangerous to attend practices. During this time, I saw on TV that the Syrian team won bronze at a global competition. At that moment, I started crying because I felt that I should be there representing my country. I left swimming [at age 15] as one of the best female swimmers in Syria and wanted to come back as the best. Overall, I want to be different and not someone who just passes through life. Swimming gives me purpose and is one of the ways in which I intend to make my mark. How have your parents shaped you? My parents have always been incredibly supportive of me and empowered me, from a young age, to make my own decisions. They trusted my judgement and always tried to teach, rather than control. They gave me the information and advice I needed, but the decisions I made were always my own. Every step of the way, I always knew they would be there to support me. Who are some people you look up to? I look up to [actress] Emma Watson; she is incredibly brilliant and really cares about people and has done amazing work for global gender equality. I also look up to Malala Yousafzai, Michael Phelps, and Muhammad Ali. But in general, I think you can learn something from every person you meet and I take that perspective with me in understanding everyone’s stories, regardless of their background. What message do you hope to share with the world through your UN work? My work with the UN is incredibly important to me. Telling the stories of refugees is my core focus beyond swimming. I hope my book, the upcoming movie, and people sharing these can generate more global conversations. I don’t want the focus to be on my own story, but rather the story of all refugees. I want people to know about their experiences. Refugees go through the immense challenge of moving their entire lives and starting from nothing in a foreign country where they don’t know anyone or anything, not even the language. In these new countries, refugees face people who don’t support them and don’t understand their background. People have many misconceptions about refugees, thinking they chose to leave their home countries and have solely come to take jobs or income. But the truth is, refugees never had a choice to leave and they are only looking for peace. What is your best advice for aspiring women leaders? Ignore the voices and people invalidating your stories and telling you that you can’t. If you have critics, that means you have stood for something you believe in, and that makes you a success and inspiration. Keep doing what you are doing. Together, we can show the world that we are as capable as men in every way. Never underestimate your value and keep fighting.
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Yusra! Hello and thank you so much for taking the time to tell us part of your story. So incredible! Do you mind sharing a bit about what it’s been like living in Germany?Also, have you ever seen the movie Gattaca? There is an inspiring swim scene and associated quote that I think of often (and which reminds me of you): “I never saved anything for the swim back.” I don’t want to ruin the context if you’ve never seen it, but it’s all about looking forward and believing in yourself. 💗