Syrian refugee swam to freedom - now she’s in the Olympics

Teenage refugee saved 20 lives in her escape from Syria across the Aegean Sea.

Refugee team swimmer Yusra Mardini, 18, from Syria with her German coach Sven Spannekrebs at the Olympic swimming venue in Rio de Janeiro, August 4, 2016. Michael Dalder / Reuters.
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LONDON // Less than a year ago, Yusra Mardini had to swim for her life. The overloaded dinghy taking her and 22 other Syrian refugees to Greece started to sink so Yusra, her sister Sara and another woman jumped into the freezing Aegean Sea and for more than three hours, they kept the boat afloat and hauled it through the water until they reached land. Their actions saved 19 other lives as well as their own.

Now Yusra faces another important test of her swimming ability but at stake this time is an Olympic medal. The 18-year-old Syrian is competing in the 100 metres butterfly and 100m freestyle at the Rio Olympic Games as a member of the first ever team of refugee athletes.

She was also chosen to carry the Olympic flag — the banner under which the 10-strong refugee team is competing — at the opening ceremony, an honour she says filled her with “pride, happiness and butterflies in the stomach.”

Back home in Damascus, Yusra was a talented swimmer and professionally backed by the Syrian Olympic Committee. Yet only 11 months ago, Yusra wondered if the sport she loves so much would be the death of her.

In 2012, she represented her country in the FINA /world Swimming Championships in the 200m individual medley, the 200m freestyle and 400m freestyle events.

But as the conflict raged on in Syria, Yusra often found herself training in swimming pools where the roofs had been blown open by bombings. And sometimes it was too dangerous to train at all.

When their home was destroyed, Yusra and Sara left Damascus and headed for Lebanon and then Turkey. From there they boarded a dinghy, along with 20 others — three times as many people as the craft was designed to carry.

“Before you go on the boat, people tell you that you are going to die,” said Sara. “So the first thing you think about when you get on that boat is death. You don’t think of anything else.”

Sara, also a swimmer, said she told Yusra that if their boat capsized during the journey they should just try to save themselves as it would be impossible to help everyone else.

Just 30 minutes after setting off from Turkey, the engine on the boat began to fail and the dinghy began to deflate. Sara, Yusra and the third woman were the only ones who could swim. They knew they could not let the others drown.

“We needed to have less weight on the boat and nobody else besides us could swim,” Sara he recalled. “When I first got into the water my whole body was shaking like it does just before competition. At that very moment I felt that life was bigger than me alone. All the people on that boat were part of me. I felt it was my duty to jump in the water. If I left them I would feel bad about myself for the rest of my life.”

Yusra said, “When I was in the water there was fear. You don’t know whether you are going to live or die. I had one hand with the rope attached to the boat as I moved my two legs and my other arm. After three-and-a-half hours in cold water, your body is almost like ... done. I don’t know if I can describe it.”

One of the men in the boat — a friend of their father — cut off the girls’ trouser legs so they would not be weighed down by clothing.

After two hours of pushing and pulling the dinghy, the sisters were exhausted. But they could not risk falling asleep and drowning.

“It was getting dark and cold, the wind was blowing and I was freezing. My eyes were full of salt water and I could not open them any more, ” said Sara..

They finally made landfall on the Greek island of Lesbos in the middle of night.

After Greece, the sisters travelled through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria to Germany. They now live in Berlin.

Yusra says she now hates open water but the memory of that epic swim across the Aegean does not haunt her.

“I remember that without swimming, I would not be alive. It was really hard, for everyone and I don’t blame anyone if they cried. But it’s a positive memory for me.”

She hopes her story will inspire others. “When I was swimming for my life, I never would have believed I would be where I am now.” She says she has three wishes. “I wish for borders to be open for refugees, I hope to win an Olympic media and I wish for my hometown to be at peace again.”

Thomson Reuters Foundation