Meet Yusra Mardini, an 18 year old who will be competing in the 200 meter freestyle at the Summer Olympics in Rio this August. Like ma,ny athletes, Yusra has dedicated years of training and determination to make it to the Summer Olympics. However, unlike the majority of Olympic athletes, Yusra cannot represent her home country. Her home was destroyed. Her country remains in shambles. And the world continues to turn a blind eye to the conflict that has raged havoc in Syria for the past 5 years.
Yusra Mardini will be joining 9 other athletes from Ethiopia, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Syria who will be part of the Refugee Olympic Team. Through the International Olympic Committee, the refugees will be provided the necessary funds and resources to participate in this global competition.
Thomas Bach, the President of the International Olympic Committee stated, "These refugees have no home, no team, no flag, no national anthem...[They] will show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit."
Yusra's own talents and strength lead her to excel the swimming pool. Like many children, she dreamed of representing her country in the Olympics someday as a swimmer. Her dedication drove her to train for hours upon hours, despite the limited resources and funds she had in her country. In 2012, she represented Syria at the FINA World Championships. For Yusra, it seemed like she was on the road to success.
Unlike your average Olympic athlete, however, Yusra struggled to continue to train because she was gradually watching her hometown of Damascus being torn apart by continual warfare. “Sometimes you [would] have a training and there [would be] a bombing in the swimming pool," Mardini later stated when describing conditions. Training would often be cancelled. Once her family's home was destroyed in the Civil, Mardini had no other option but to flee with her sister to Turkey where the sisters, along with thousands of others, bargained passage onto a small ship to travel across the Aegean Sea. In August of 2015 sisters and about 20 other passengers crammed onto the boat designed to fit 6. When the boat’s engine began to fail, Yusra slid out of the boat with her sister and another passenger and pushed the boat for more than 3 hours until they finally reached the shores of the Greek island of Yusvos.
Without the Yusra and her sister, the 20 lives aboard the small boat would be part of the 2,500 refugees who have died trying to make the same crossing, including the little 3 year old Aylan Kurd whose body managed to grab the world's attention for a moment in September of 2015. The world has witnessed the death of more than 3,695 refugees who tried to escape to Europe in 2015.
Yusra's search for an asylum did not stop on the shores of Yusvos. She traveled through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Vienna, and Munich, constantly afraid of being caught by border police.
Yusra eventually settled with her sister in Berlin, where 100,000 refugees have sought asylum in the past year. There, she continued her training in a prestigious sports club and was eventually reunited with the rest of her family. However, reports suggest that Germany and other countries may soon tighten their borders, shutting out those like Yusra Mardini who are simply searching for safety.
Yusra's struggle to make her childhood dream of competing in the Olympics was far from reality. She and her coach originally planned on waiting to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics since her flight from Syria had disrupted her training. As the Olympic trials soon approached, Yusra still knew she had to cut down her times and knew the trials would be a long shot. Her optimism and immense self-discipline drove her to continue training, sometime waking up at 5 for extra sessions. In ..., Yusra competed against 43 other individuals and landed a spot in the Refugee Olympic Team.
Other members of the team have all experienced similar trials. They all were force to flee their homelands and were separated from their families, some of them as young as 6 years old. Many of the teammates have had little professional training and equipment until recently. South Sudanese refugee, Rose Lokoyen, had never even owned a pair of professional running shoes until a few months ago. Others were abused by their coaches after having fled their home country.
While these athletes may not have a country to represent, they do represent a light of hope for the 5.9 million refugees who have been forced from their homes this past year. When speaking to members of the team, Chief Filippo Grandi stated, “All the refugees in the world are looking at you because you are their champions. I think you have a responsibility to show them that you can achieve great results, and that being a refugee does not make any difference. You are human beings like everybody else."
On August 5th, as the global community turns its eyes to the Opening Ceremony in Rio, as the Refugee Olympic team carries the Olympic flag they will "act as a symbol of hope for refugees worldwide and bring global attention to the magnitude of the refugee crisis" (Thomas Bach).
Hopefully, these athletes and their stories will not just bring a few weeks of hashtags or Facebook posts but encourage united worldwide action by the global community to address the continued refugee crisis. The Olympics provide a powerful opportunity to refugees, allowing their stories to change the global perception of refugees.
Yusra's fellow Syrian teammate, Rami Anis expressed a hope that in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, there will be no refugee team because the conflicts will be over and every athlete will be able to represent their own country.