Riveting new book tells how UNHCR ambassador Yusra Mardini swam to history
BERLIN, Germany – Swimmer Yusra Mardini, who competed as part of the Refugee Olympic Team at the 2016 Games, fled her native Syria in 2015 and boarded a small dinghy in Turkey full of refugees bound for Greece.
When the boat's engine cut out and it began to sink, Yusra, then aged 17, her older sister Sara and two other people jumped into the water to lighten the load and guide the boat to safety until it reached the Greek island of Lesvos three-and-a-half hours later, saving the lives of those on board.
Her remarkable story is told in a book, entitled “Butterfly”, which was launched in Berlin on Monday. The English edition will be released in London later this week.
A year after her ordeal, Yusra competed with the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team in Rio and was subsequently appointed the youngest-ever Goodwill Ambassador by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
She was named one of People magazine’s 25 women changing the world and one of Time Magazine’s 30 most influential teens of 2016.
She says her own experience of flight has made her determined to speak up for those forced to flee and she is happy to represent UNHCR.
At Monday’s launch she spoke of a trip to Italy, where she met African refugees who had landed there: “That was heart-breaking. I really had to cry. My story is nothing compared to the people who fled Africa. They crossed the desert and only one in 14 survives. UNHCR is doing such a fantastic job.”
Coached by their father, Yusra and her sister were keen swimmers at home in Damascus and her dream was to compete in the Olympics.
“My family is swimming and swimming is my family,” she said. “That’s all I ever wanted. But then a bomb hit our stadium and my parents did what all parents do when they think the children are in danger. So, we decided to leave Syria.”
Yusra now lives in Berlin where she is training for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
She added: “Nobody really decides to flee. We just had no choice. Nobody had a choice.”