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5 Things to Know About Yusra Mardini, the Syrian Refugee Olympian Who Swam for Her Life

Photo courtesy of The UN Refugee Agency

Syrian refugee and Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini has given a stellar performance in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Five years after she was a part of the inaugural IOC Refugee Olympic Team in the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, the German resident once again contested in the 100m butterfly race at Tokyo 2020. The 23-year-old finished in third place in her heat, clocking a time of 1:06.78, but was unable to qualify for the semi-finals. However, it marks another chapter in her inspiring story.

Prior to the civil war in Syria, Mardini was a competitive swimmer as a child, representing her country in international competitions. This changed as the war intensified, and her survival became dependent on her ability to swim when she was forced to flee the country with her sister. Journeying across seas as a 17-year-old from Damascus to Berlin in 2015, Mardini and her sister Sarah almost drowned in the process. After making their way to Lebanon and then Turkey, they were arranged to be smuggled into Greece in an overcrowded dinghy that suffered an engine failure amidst the Aegean Sea. The sisters swam for three and half hours to stop the boat from capsizing, ensuring the safety of everyone else on the dinghy, and managed to reach the German capital in September 2015.

Here, some things you must know about Yusra Mardini.

Competing as a member of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team changed her life

Being selected to be part of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team in August 2016 catapulted the athlete to a global stage,  and later address world leaders such as Barack Obama at the UN General Assembly. She has also met the Pope and honored with several awards, making it into People magazine’s 25 Women Changing the World list.

She was a flag bearer at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics


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A post shared by Yusra Mardini (@yusramardini)

At 23, Mardini has already made two of her dreams come true by participating in two Olympics, and at the opening ceremony in Tokyo, she fulfilled yet another. Together with track and field athlete Tachlowini Gabriyesos from Eritrea, she carried the Olympic flag at the head of the refugee team during the march-in. “I can’t find words for what I felt carrying and representing the refugee Olympic flag,” Mardini later wrote to her over 140,000 followers on Instagram. Mardini has her sights set on getting a German passport, studying and opening a swimming school.

She was appointed the youngest ever UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador 

At the age of 19 in April 2017, the athlete was appointed the youngest ever Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR by the UN Refugee Agency. In her role, she advocates for refugees globally and has become an example of their determination to rebuild lives and contribute to host communities. Mardini has spoken on behalf of UNHCR at Google Zeitgeist, WE Day, the World Economic Forum in Davos and many other global stages.

Her autobiography was published in 2018

Mardini’s incredible story is told in her memoir Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian – My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph, published in April 2018. According to UNHCR, during the launch, she spoke of a trip to Italy, where she met African refugees who had landed there. “That was heart-breaking. I really had to cry. My story is nothing compared to the people who fled Africa. They crossed the desert and only one in 14 survives,” she said.

Her memoir is being adapted into a film

Sarah and Yusra Mardini. Photo: Getty Images

Production has begun on a new Netflix film based on the lives of the Mardini sisters. Titled The Swimmers, the film is being created by the streaming giant with Egyptian-Welsh director and screenwriter Sally El Hosaini. Playing the two heroic sisters in the film are also two Lebanese sisters, Manal and Nathalie Issa. The Swimmers will be shot between the UK, Belgium, and Turkey, and is set to be released on Netflix globally in 2022.

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