From Syrian Refugee To Olympian: Yusra Mardini Redefines Resilience

Yusra Mardini is our honoree for Muslim Women to Watch 2023, Muslim Girl’s annual list of the prolific Muslim women making our year.

Yusra Mardini’s story begins in Damascus, Syria, where she spent her life training, and practicing to become a competitive swimmer. Her journey into athleticism began when she represented Syria during the 2012 Federation Internationale de Natation (FINA) Short Course World Championships, where she won gold. Only three years later, Mardini’s life completely changed when the Syrian War began. With her sister Sara, Mardini fled Syria and traveled through Lebanon to arrive in Turkey.

From there, the two girls joined an overseas journey that nearly took Mardini’s life. On the boat that was transporting them to Greece, the motor broke down, and the boat began to submerge underwater. Mardini, with Sara, and two other passengers that could swim, pushed the boat until they reached land at Lesbos, Greece, which took them three hours to arrive. They then traveled to Germany, where Mardini and Sara were later joined by their parents.

It was in Germany that Mardini resumed her training, which allowed her to qualify for the 2016 IOC Refugee Olympic Team, which would compete in Rio. Mardini’s athletic career further accelerated after she was selected as the youngest Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2017.

Mardini’s story is inspiring because of the courageous steps she took to flee with her sister on a dangerous journey that sheltered them in a foreign land.

One year later, she released her book Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian, My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph, and even has a movie made about her titled The Swimmers. Mardini empowers young Muslim women to not conform to cultural norms, believe in themselves, and work hard for their dreams. 

Mardini’s story is inspiring because of the courageous steps she took to flee with her sister on a dangerous journey that sheltered them in a foreign land. However, it is only thanks to digital media that we know of her story and the influence that she continues to have on Muslim women today. The film made on Mardini’s life shows when she decides to leave her country, and her parents, behind. It screens the heartbreaking moment where one sister fears that she has lost her other sister in the abyss of the ocean. It captures those moments of victory as Mardini overcomes every obstacle to making history. Published on a platform like Netflix, Mardini’s story is not only broadcasted to the audience in the U.S. but to viewers globally.

In an interview for TIME Magazine, Mardini expresses that she wants her viewers to get rid of the stereotype they have of how a refugee looks like and that arriving as a refugee in a foreign land isn’t as glamorous as they think it is.

“It’s not a luxurious life, you have to fill out so much paperwork, some people fall into depression, some are not accepted by their host societies – they have to leave behind everything they know,” Mardini said. On the other side, Mardini’s younger sister, Sara, emphasizes that because they were women, they didn’t have as traumatic an experience as male refugees. According to Sara, male refugees have it, “10 times harder,” and, “they’re the last ones to be checked or to be taken care of.” In their film, the storyline also showcases a glimpse into the difficult journey of their younger cousin, Nizar, who also fled to Germany, bringing to the surface yet another international conversation that is needed.