By STRONG. Magazine for Girls

“I think about a lot of words when I think about Yusra,” said Kelly T. Clement, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees  “Resilience, hope, strength, courage.”

Clement was giving a joint press conference with Yusra Mardini, who, at 19, has just been made the UN’s youngest ever Goodwill Ambassador.

You may have seen Yusra in the news over the past year.  She competed with the refugee team at the Olympics in Rio, winning the opening heat of the 100m Butterfly on August 6th. Her story, from Damascus, Syria, to the Olympics, is quite remarkable.

As a child growing up in Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, the capital of Syria, Yusra had a comfortable life.  Her mother, Mervat, was a physiotherapist and her father, Ezzar, was a swimming coach.  She and her older sister, Sara, trained with him in the pool regularly and both were already competing at a high level. 

“I just kept swimming and going to school, trying to be a normal kid”

Yusra was in 7th grade when protests against President Bashar al-Assad began, but life carried on pretty much as normal.  No one could forsee the massive civil war that was to come, which would kill more that 470,000 people and displace more than 5 million.  “I just kept swimming and going to school, trying to be a normal kid,” Yusra told Vogue Magazine in March 2017.

A huge battle broke out in her hometown of Daraya in 2012, with Assad’s government forces pitted against the opposition’s rebel forces.  The town was all but destroyed, and many hundreds of people were killed.  Syrians who remained ran short on food, there were soldiers and tanks in the streets, and people ate soup made from leaves to survive.  Two years passed with Yusra unable to train.  It was hard to get to the pool because of all the shooting going on.

The family was reluctant to leave.  It would be hard to get all five (Yusra has a younger sister as well) of them out.  But eventually it was agreed that Yusra and Sara should escape.  They travelled from Damascus to Lebanon, and then to the port of Izmir in Turkey.  There they met with smugglers and other refugees trying to get to Europe.  They spent four days in the woods near a Turkish beach, starving and with only the possessions they carried. Yusra had only jeans, flip flops and her phone.  Then they boarded a small dinghy, built to carry six, with 18 other people, bound for the Greek island of Lesbos.

“I thought it would be a real shame if I drowned in the sea, because I am a swimmer.”

20 minutes into their journey the motor on their boat failed and the boat threatened to capsize.  There were only four people on board who could swim, the Mardini sisters and two others.  Between them they swam, tugging and dragging the boat through the salty seas and high waves, until, exhausted, they reached land three and a half hours later. “I thought it would be a real shame if I drowned in the sea, because I am a swimmer,” Yusra told journalists.

From Lesbos, the sisters still had to make their way across Europe.  They travelled through Macedonia and Serbia, but were held up in Budapest at the central train station when the Prime Minister decided to close Hungary’s borders to refugees. Eventually, they crossed into Austria and arrived in Germany, where they spent six months in a refugee camp.

Once there, Yusra heard about an opportunity to swim again and began training with Sven Spannekrebs, a coach at a swimming club in Berlin. In 2016 she was selected to compete under the banner of the Olympic flag in the newly formed refugee team at the Rio Olympic Games.  At a press conference announcing her place on the ten-strong Olympic team, Mardini said “I want everyone to think refugees are normal people who had their homelands and lost them not because they wanted to run away and be refugees, but because they have dreams in their lives and they had to go.”

Since Rio, Yusra has continued to train, but also to be a voice for refugees.  She has met with former President Obama, Pope Francis, Queen Rania of Jordan, and Ban Ki-moon (former Secretary General of the United Nations).  Her new role as a UN Goodwill Ambassador will see Yusra continue her work helping refugees and sending them a powerful message of hope.  

Yusra continues to swim and has her sights set on a gold medal in Tokyo in 2020.


This piece was originally published in STRONG, a new magazine aimed at tween and teenaged girls that seeks to break the mold. While many other publications for this age group focus on celebrities, STRONG focuses on real girls with diverse interests. While other publications focus on body image and fashion, STRONG focuses on keeping a healthy body and mind. STRONG also presents great role models - girls who have overcome adversity and thrived, and women who are breaking glass ceilings in areas previously dominated by men. Visit www.strongmagazineforgirls.com to learn more.