Syrian refugee says more than food needed to nourish dreams

Yusra Mardini, the Syrian swimmer who inspired the world at last summer’s Rio Olympic Games, has made an impassioned appeal to global leaders in Davos.

Syrian refugee swimmer Yusra Mardini takes time out from taking part in live workshops at Davos 2017 to enjoy the alpine surroundings outside her hotel. ; Aged just 17, Yusra Mardini and her sister, Sarah, fled the war in Syria in August 2015. They travelled to Lebanon, then Turkey, and paid smugglers to take them across the sea to Greece. Their small boat was built to carry six people but overloaded with 18. Its engine failed after half an hour and the Mardini sisters jumped into the water and pushed the boat for three hours until they reached the Greek island of Lesvos. They then began a much longer journey through Europe to Germany. Spending their first winter in a tent with six other Syrian refugees in a camp near Berlin, the Mardini sisters were put in touch with local swimming club, Wasserfreunde Spandau 04. Yusra received a training scholarship from the International Olympic Committee and qualified for a place on the Refugee Olympic Team to compete at the Rio 2016 Games.

Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini addressed a star-studded crowd in Davos and spoke of her personal experience fleeing war in Syria. © UNHCR/Gisella Lomax

DAVOS, Switzerland – Yusra Mardini, the Syrian swimmer who inspired the world at last summer’s Rio Olympic Games, has made an impassioned appeal to global leaders in Davos to ensure vulnerable refugees like her are given more than basic support.

“With food for our stomachs, refugees can survive. But only if they are given food for the soul will they be able to thrive,” Yusra, 18, told a high-profile side event at this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF).

“But there are different kinds of nourishment. There is the love of your family and your friends – and maybe they are still in the war zone, or maybe you got separated from them as you fled the violence.”

Yusra, a strong supporter of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency was speaking at the ‘Global Goals Dinner for a Healthy Not Hungry, Inclusive World’ event, co-hosted by the World Food Programme, UNICEF and Project Everyone.

“As a refugee, you know what it is to be hungry and thirsty.”

“As a refugee, you know what it is to be hungry and thirsty… If you are lucky enough to reach a place of safety, you are given food, water and shelter. And of course without those things you cannot survive,” she added.

Attendees included business and world leaders, renowned chefs and celebrity advocates including singer and activist Shakira, Manal Al-Alem – the ‘Queen of the Arabian Kitchen’, British restaurateur Jamie Oliver and Richard Curtis.

During her journey from Greece to Germany in 2015, Yusra (left) traveled through Hungary with other asylum-seekers. © UNHCR/Lam Duc Hien

Drawing on her own personal experience, Yusra spoke emotionally of the challenges of fleeing war and persecution — a reality now faced by more than 65 million people.

“My country used to burst with food,” she said, reminding the audience that Syria, now ruined by war, was once agriculturally rich.

Yusra fled war in Syria and saved lives during a perilous boat-crossing from Turkey to Greece. She captured the world’s attention when she swam in the 100-metre freestyle event in Rio de Janeiro as part of the first Team Refugees.

Introducing her to the stage, the Olympian great Michael Johnson said “Yusra is one of the bravest women… all of the Olympians who made up the Refugee Olympic Team overcame hardship and injustice, and earned the opportunity to compete against the best in the world.”

“Yusra is one of the bravest women.”

While she is now training to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, the teenager is focusing on inspiring other displaced people around the world and changing the way refugees are perceived.

“There is nourishment in being active,” Yusra said. “In my case, in swimming and training for hours every day, in striving for an Olympic medal, in standing up for the cause of refugees everywhere as a UNHCR supporter – and a proud member of Team Refugees.”

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