Syrian Olympian Yusra Mardini On The Unifying Power Of Sports

5 min read
Image courtesy of Yusra Mardini

Syrian refugee turned Olympic swimmer, the story of Yusra Mardini’s life is a testament to the power of never giving up. Now, through the establishment of her namesake foundation, she’s on a mission to give displaced people a brighter future

“Sports is a powerful unifying force,” says Yusra Mardini from her university in California, Her story, which saw her go from fleeing violence in Damascus to representing the IOC Refugee Olympic Team in Rio de Janeiro, is an inspiration to all.

Growing up in war-torn Syria as a teenager, the community she embraced during the games gave her life a new direction. “It wasn’t just about representing myself, but standing there as a symbol of hope for millions of displaced people around the world. The unity and support among the Refugee Olympic Team members and athletes from different nations were truly special. It reinforced the idea that sports have the power to transcend borders and bring people together in the spirit of peace and competition,” she tells MOJEH.

Just like millions of others around the globe, you’ll most likely recognise her name from Netflix film The Swimmers, which told the story of Yusra and her sister Sarah Mardini’s escape across the perilous Mediterranean seas to reach Greece, from where they hoped to seek asylum in Germany. You may have also read her story in her bestselling memoir Butterfly. The athlete’s incredible journey, however, began many years before the fame and adulation.

While grappling with emotions of fear and uncertainty, Yusra fled Syria for Berlin in the hopes of a better future. Yusra wears a watch by Oris.

“My childhood memories in suburban Damascus are so special to me and it makes me happy to remember going to swim practice with my father or walking around in a city full of jasmine flowers,” she enthuses. “My childhood memories and living in Syria shape the way I think, and it makes me proud to see how kind Syrians are and how peaceful my world was back then.”

Her teenage life turned upside down during the civil war as she was compelled to flee her country with her sister via a death-defying voyage across the ocean. Their inflatable raft capsized in the turbulent waters, leaving Yusra and her sister to fend for themselves. Had it not been for their father’s stringent training in swimming, the two siblings couldn’t have survived the three-hour gruelling swim and rescue mission, saving the lives of all the other refugees on the boat. After going several days without food and water, they finally made it to Berlin safely and were granted asylum.

“The decision to leave Syria was a complex and emotional one,” she explains. “It was driven by a sense of the need for safety and the will to have a future. The emotions were a mix of fear, uncertainty, and hope.” Despite living in refugee camps and struggling to make ends meet, Yusra hoped to continue swimming and pursue her Olympics dream. Showing extraordinary courage and conviction, she managed to qualify, with the help of a German coach.

Yusra found mainstream fame through The Swimmers, an acclaimed Netflix film that chronicled her journey from Syria to the Olympics.

Today Yusra, who was appointed the youngest ever UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador at the age of 19, is harnessing her fame and recognition to help other refugees, and just last year she finally established her own charity, The Yusra Mardini Foundation. Her inspiration stems from the belief that everyone deserves a chance to rebuild their lives. “I firmly believe that sports and education are powerful tools for transforming the lives of refugees,” she continues. “Sports provide a sense of normalcy, a way to build resilience and foster teamwork. Education, on the other hand, opens doors to opportunities and empowers individuals to shape their own destinies.”

The main goals of the foundation are to support and empower displaced individuals, focusing on education, sports and mental health. “By combining sports and education, we can create holistic programmes that not only address immediate needs but also contribute to the long-term wellbeing of refugees,” she explains. “These initiatives aim to instil hope, resilience and a sense of purpose, ultimately improving the lives of those who, like me, have been forced to flee their homes.”

Towards the end of last year, Yusra was also appointed as ambassador and sustainability partner for luxury Swiss watchmaker Oris — a role she hopes to use to help spread her message even further. “Beyond environmental conservation projects, Oris is also involved in social and charitable initiatives,” she tells us. “For instance, it supports humanitarian organisations striving to enhance living conditions. The brand advocates fairness in the supply chain and ethical business practices, which underscores Oris’s commitment not only to creating high-quality products but also to having a positive impact on society as a whole.” The Oris ‘Change for the Better’ initiative also works closely with Yusra’s foundation, shedding light on the plight of 110 million displaced people worldwide, aiming to prove that hope can emerge from tragedy and that change is attainable.

Although Yusra no longer swims competitively, she continues to make an impact in the sporting community through advocating for displaced individuals’ rights to shape their destinies through sports and education.

In the wake of the Palestine crisis, the foundation has responded quickly to help displaced communities. “Given the current situation, we are adapting and expanding our programmes to meet the evolving needs of displaced individuals,” she explains. “We are collaborating with local and international partners to create a network of support, offering practical solutions and fostering a sense of belonging and hope for a brighter future,” she says.

Although Yusra is no longer swimming competitively, she continues to adapt and persevere in unfamiliar territory. “My start in Germany was both a relief and a new set of challenges. While I found safety and support, adapting to a new culture, language and rebuilding my life was full of hurdles,” she says. Now pursuing higher education opportunities in the United States, she still manages to find solace in staying tied to her culture through Arabic food, Arabic music and swimming for leisure. Sports is still an integral part of her life as she reinforces the need for professional training for displaced youth.

In a powerful and poignant scene from their biopic, the Mardini sisters are branded ‘superheroes’ after saving their fellow refugees from drowning at sea. With Yusra’s extraordinary grit and relentless effort for the cause of refugees across the world, we couldn’t agree more.

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  • Words by Priyanka Pradhan