Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini plunges into life after Rio Games

After her high-profile appearance as part of the Refugee Olympic Team, the teenager is studying hard and speaking up for the refugee cause.

Yusra Mardini tells her story at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
© David G McIntyre/Zuma Press

It has been a rollercoaster year for teenage Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini. After her high-profile appearance in Rio as part of the Refugee Olympic Team, she has spoken on behalf of refugees at the United Nations in New York and at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Back in the pool, her sights are fixed on the 2020 Games in Tokyo. She is also studying hard, working to catch up on an education disrupted by war. However, she still finds time to champion the refugee cause.

“I have 10 swimming training sessions a week and this is kind of my life right now,” Yusra, 18, told UNHCR in Berlin. “But there are also a lot of things in my head rolling around about refugees and helping people. I want to change people’s perceptions of what a refugee is.”

Team Refugees look to the future: Yusra Mardini

Yusra said her own experience of flight meant she was determined to keep the refugee issue high on the world’s list of priorities. She is keen to develop skills as a motivational speaker, building on appearances such as her address to the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants in New York in September.

This month she spoke at a high-profile side event at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where she was introduced by former American Olympic athlete Michael Johnson as “one of the bravest women.”

"I want to change people’s perceptions.”

Above all, she wants to use her voice to show the world that refugees are normal people in extraordinary circumstances, forced to flee death and destruction at home. She is keen to tackle misconceptions such as views that refugees are uneducated or are relocating for financial gain.

“People think that refugees have nothing, that they know nothing or that they came just to take something,” she said. “But a lot of refugees are doctors, a lot of them are engineers.

“We had to flee our homes. We came here because we wanted peace, because we couldn’t take much more of war.”

  • Yusra Mardini, 18, is interviewed in Berlin.
    Yusra Mardini, 18, is interviewed in Berlin. © UNHCR/Daniel Etter
  • Yusra talks during the 'Sporting for Survival' session at the WEF.
    Yusra talks during the 'Sporting for Survival' session at the WEF. © WEF/Valeriano Di Domenico
  • Yusra's sights are now fixed on the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
    Yusra's sights are now fixed on the 2020 Games in Tokyo. © David G McIntyre/Zuma Press

In a blog she wrote to coincide with the World Economic Forum's annual meeting, she appealed to fellow refugees: “This is my call for us all to take a stand now, together, under that name we share, refugee. I am Yusra. I am a refugee and I’m proud to stand for peace, for decency and dignity for all those fleeing violence.”

Yusra risked her life last year when she fled to Europe to escape the Syrian conflict. “For us it was either you’re going to go and maybe die along the way, or you’re going to stay here and die every day.”

Yusra said her own story was an example of the realities of life for many refugees in Western Europe. Many may know her as the girl who jumped into the Aegean from a sinking boat with her 21-year-old sister Sarah and helped push it and its 20 desperate passengers to safety.

Being a refugee is more than perilous sea crossings and narrow escapes. For many of Europe’s newcomers, life has settled into the wait for a decision on an application for asylum, a frustrating battle to reunite their families or a struggle to get an education or find work.

Yusra is no exception. At school in Berlin she is wrestling with daily German lessons in an effort to finish her disrupted high school education in a foreign tongue. Like many other refugees her age, she left before finishing high school and cannot attend university until she completes secondary school in her host country.

Language was an even bigger barrier for her parents, who also live in Berlin, she said. Both had worked hard in Syria were unaccustomed to enforced idleness.

She praised Germany’s decision to open its doors to refugees, but added that it did not know what to do with them once they were there.   

“I’m proud to stand for peace, for decency and dignity for all those fleeing violence.”

However, waiting around with little to do was nothing compared with the difficulties faced by most refugees throughout the word. She fears for friends and her extended family left behind in Syria.

“I want to tell the world about what’s happening in Syria, about the people stuck there,” she said. “I see a lot of bad videos and think: ‘Why am I here safe while Syrian people are being killed in Aleppo and elsewhere?’ It could just as well have been me or my mum or my sister being killed.”

With humanitarian crises unfolding all over the world, Yusra knows there’s a huge amount of work to be done to improve the lot of those forced to flee. She said she believed the world was ready to hear their point of view.

“We must grab their attention,” she said. “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.”