Issue 11: Yusra Mardini

Yusra Mardini

by Melanie Gasmen-Fleck

Yusra Mardini is an Olympic swimmer who was a member of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team that competed in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. At 16 years old, she left her home in war-torn Syria to seek asylum in Germany. During her journey, Yusra heroically swam and pushed a small sinking boat—holding other refugees—for three and a half hours through freezing Mediterranean waters until they reached safety. She helped save the lives of 20 people while she courageously risked her own.

We’re excited to feature Yusra and share her remarkable story in our next issue! Issue 11 will be about refugees, swimming, and the Olympics. (We’re bummed the 2020 Olympics are now postponed but are still looking forward to celebrating extraordinary athletes like her!) Read on to learn more about Yusra.

Yusra was born and raised in a suburb of Damascus, Syria. Her father, a swimming coach, taught her to swim when she was only 3 years old, and she grew up dreaming of competing in the Olympics. Yusra had a normal upbringing, but her world changed when the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011. Her family moved from city to city to avoid the conflict, but the country became more and more dangerous. Bombs destroyed her home and her community. A bomb even once crashed through the roof of her aquatics center while Yusra was training—and luckily it didn’t detonate. 

In 2015, Yusra and her older sister, Sara, had had enough of living in peril and decided to flee to Berlin. Leaving their parents and little sister behind, they escaped with a single bag carrying their belongings. They traveled from Lebanon to Turkey and joined a group of refugees hoping to reach Greece by boat. 

The group of around twenty refugees, including Yusra and her sister, packed themselves onto a small boat (built to only fit 6 people) and set sail in the night. After only twenty minutes, the boat’s engine died, and it started to slowly fill with water. Yusra, Sara, and two other men were the only passengers who knew how to swim. In order to save the others from drowning, the four of them guided the boat by swimming and pulling it through cold and choppy waters toward safety on the shores of Lesbos, Greece.

When they got to Greece, they walked for days and slept anywhere they could, including fields or churches. They continued their way up through the Balkan Peninsula to Hungary. Even though they had money, Yusra and her group were refused service by restaurants, taxis, and trains just because they were refugees.

After a month-long journey, Yusra and her sister finally made it to Germany and lived in a refugee camp while they waited to be granted asylum. On most days, they waited for eight hours in freezing temperatures only to be turned away and asked to return the next day. 

They finally received asylum from Germany and started their lives in Berlin, where Yusra met swimming coach Sven Spannekrebs. When her new coach heard that the International Olympic Committee wanted to form a team of refugees to compete in the 2016 Rio Games in Brazil, he immediately knew this would be the opportunity of a lifetime for Yusra. The committee awarded Yusra a training scholarship for her strong swimming skills and she started her rigorous Olympic training in order to compete later that year. At the Rio Games, Yusra represented millions of refugees around the world. Her competitors considered her an underdog, but she won her own heat! 

Since the games, she has continued to use her voice to advocate for refugees. In 2017, she became the youngest Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Refugees Agency. In this role, she has given keynote speeches to the UN General Assembly and has met with world leaders, such as President Obama and Pope Francis. She has also earned many prestigious accolades for her advocacy, including TIME magazine naming her one of the most influential teens in the world. 

In 2018, she released her own autobiography, Butterfly, and a movie about her life is currently in the works. Now, at 22 years old, Yusra continues to train for the upcoming 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, where she will compete again on the Refugee Olympic Team.

Yusra stands as a true example of courage, resilience, and hope. At such a young age, she overcame more hardships than most people in the world. There’s so much to learn from Yusra and we can’t wait for you to read more about her in our upcoming issue!

The Yusra Mardini issue will be available May 26th 2020. Want to get the Yusra issue first? Subscribe to Bravery.