Monday, March 4, 2024

Yusra Mardini: A young swimmer turned into a hero

Written By Mahi Chaudhari (Grade 11)


The briny water floods all the thoughts, and when only one thought remains, it’s either a wistful chance to live or a tragic drowning. The chills from that imagination are incomparable to 17-year-old Yusra’s life. This is a story of a girl who pushed all limits, broke bounds and most importantly, still stands strong as ever today.

The story rewinds to the busy streets of Damascus, Syria in 1988 where the Mardini family was blessed with another girl child, Yusra. Her name symbolized prosperity and success.

Yusra and her elder sister Sarah came from a family of swimmers and both trained under the Syria Olympic Committee. Their dad, Ezzat Mardini was their official coach and a respectable swimmer. Yusra represented Syria in the World Swimming Championship in 2012 in various pool events.

But, things were a turmoil, due to the Syrian Civil War. In 3 years, the Mardini sisters decided to flee Syria for better opportunities and security. After embarking on many different life-or-death situations, they travelled through Europe, from Lebanon to Turkey and eventually, they had to cross the Aegean Sea to reach Greece.

The courage the girls had inspired me to leap of out my comfort zone to achieve the dream we always dreamt about regardless of how distant, unforeseeable or painstaking it is, in the end, it is worth a shot.

In the sketchy streets of Turkey, the sisters struggled to find people who would take them there. But soon found a smuggler who was willing to take them to Greece. However, he cheated them and left them with a group of 18 people to go on a boat which could only accommodate seven people at a max. Nevertheless, the migrants had no choice but to set their journey. As fear for the unknown gripped the vast yet blankness of the Aegean Sea under the moonlight, slowly things started to take a turn for the worse as the turbulent waters hit the boat.

The engine on the boat stopped working and it was going to drown. Soon everyone started counting their last words but Sarah stepped up to swim the boat afloat to the shore. After seeing Sarah jump into the stormy water, Yusra also did the same. But her elder sister was getting worried for her as she was still young and it was not an easy task. In return, Yusra returned a short sentence, “If you are doing it, I will too”. The Mardini sisters and two others jumped into the brutal bone-cold waters. Yusra embodied the Arabic saying,

“Lan takuna qadiran ‘ala qati’ al-muhit idha lam yakin ladayka al-shaja’ah an takhsar mar’a al-shati’.
Translation: “You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”

They swam for hours still they finally reached the golden Greek coastline. Despite that, this wasn’t the end of the journey. The sisters travelled through dense forests, borders and several countries with no communication, nor a proper habilitation. Finally, they reached Berlin, Germany where they could live as refugees in the refugee camps the government set up.

Just thinking about leaving my safe abode, makes my blood run cold, and for the girls of my age to do the same, makes me gain respect for their mental strength and to gamble their lives on the line. The unshakable resolve in Yusra to travel more than thousands of kilometres and abandon her homeland and family is far more commendable for any young girl of her age.

Regardless, she didn’t stop there, her devotion to swimming never took a backseat as she started the sport again under a German coach, Sven Spannekrebs. She proved her skill, and strength and strived to swim to which he offered to train her. She got recognized and a year after she entered into a new team that was formed for the refugees, the Refugees Olympics team. They competed at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics 2016. although she was disheartened that she couldn’t represent her home country, her participation gave hope to millions around the world who were displaced or had to flee from their homes in search of safety and a better life.

Although she didn’t win any medal, she won plenty of hearts and gave a message to the world about the hardships refugees have to face throughout their lifetimes.

In contrast to Yusra’s achievements in swimming, her success and credits extend beyond the pool. She has become an advocate for refugees all around the world and is an active member of UNHCR and was named the Goodwill Ambassador in 2016, being the youngest ever ambassador at 19. Following this designation, she received many awards for her initiatives to bring awareness about refugees to the world, and one of them is the prestigious UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award.

This inspires me to achieve success to always give back to society and amplify the voices of many young girls just like these amazing women.

Apart from advocacy, she continued her studies in Germany and now attends the University of Southern California for Film and TV. She inspires many to strive harder with resilience just like her, including intellectually. After all, success doesn’t stop the curb to know more.

Today she is a co-author of her biography, Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian, My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph. Which describes her story in fine detail to the world. One of the famous quotes of this book is,

“Being a refugee is not a choice. Our choice is to die at home or risk death trying to escape.”

Additionally, she built the Yusra Mardini Foundation which provides support to refugees who are away from their homes and leads by the idea that “there is no shame of being a refugee when we know who we are”. Her foundation is also interlinked with another project of hers called Planet Water where she wants people like her to also get a chance in the sport to which she devoted her life and gave her everything she has today.

Her investments in community development have given voices to refugees to be heard loud and clear and will be remembered for generations to come.

This young girl has not only transitioned her life but has also championed millions who need and deserve representation across several continents on Earth regardless of all the personal challenges she faced over the years.

She has not only inspired me to work harder but also shifted my perception of many things in my life and taught me how to help our community to the best of our abilities. To me, she has become the embodiment of a strong successful woman in the 21st century.

She is a woman filled with single-minded commitment, unwavering focus and unshakable courage that has given strength to girls like me to look past the daunting challenges and leave an indelible mark in the world’s history.


Featured Image Courtesy – ABC News



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