23-year-old Yusra Mardini escaped the Syrian capital of Damascus with her sister in 2015.
Back in 2016, Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini made her way to becoming a member of the first-ever Refugee Team at the Olympics. The youngster won the opening heat of the women’s 100-meter butterfly swimming competition at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, reports PEOPLE. The refugee team featured 10 athletes who had been forced to leave their home countries due to violence. Mardini had to put her own swimming skills to the test when she and 18 others were on a refugee boat fleeing Damascus in 2015. Mardini, her sister, and a few other refugees were the only ones who knew how to swim. Due to a motor failure, the group had to help manage to pull the boat to safety. "That took us three hours and a half until we reached the shore,” she said according to the Olympics website.
Mardini had reached Lesbos in Greece after which she and her family members traveled through a further seven countries before eventually making their way to Berlin, Germany, where the 23-year-old and her sister currently live. “Me and my older sister decided because of war we weren’t safe. You went to school sometimes and there were bombings. In the pool there were also bombings," she told the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Less than a year later, the brave Syrian competed as part of the first-ever IOC Refugee Olympic Team at Rio 2016. “Sport was our way out,” she said. “It was kind of what gave us hope to build our new lives.”
Now, five years after Mardini was a part of the inaugural IOC Refugee Olympic Team, the swimmer is back among 29 athletes competing on the Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) in Tokyo this summer.“I was a swimmer since I was three years old, it’s something I’ve been working on my whole life. It didn’t just come to me when I came to Germany. It’s just that in Syria, I didn’t have the opportunity. I didn’t have the support of the federation.” The young athlete competed in the women’s 100-meter butterfly race over the weekend and finished third place in her heat. Mardini did not qualify because only the top 16 swimmers of 33 qualified for the semi-finals. Even though she didn't win, her message continues to be loud and clear.
The UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador is sharing her story with the world to remind everyone that refugees are people just like them. “I tell my story because I want people to understand that sport saved my life,” she said. “I think it’s a great opportunity to represent millions (of refugees) around the world, to represent that those people are normal and have dreams,” Mardini said. “I also want to remind everyone that refugees are still in the camps, and they really do need our help.” The International Olympic Committee released a video paying tribute to the Refugee Olympic Team this year. In the powerful video, the refugee swimmer narrates that the athletes in the team are united by their choice "to keep our dreams alive." "We carry [our dreams] with us across oceans and deserts and cities," Mardini says in the one-minute clip. "We brought them together to form a team greater than ourselves: one that defies borders and limits."