Yusra Mardini Talks: From Syrian Refugee Olympian to ‘the Swimmers’ on Netflix

Muslim Girl sat down with the inspirational and talented Yusra Mardini to discuss her upcoming Netflix documentary, “The Swimmers.”

Muslim Girl: You have overcome a lot in your life, how does it feel to see your story reach so many people?

Yusra Mardini: It’s crazy to see where we are today. My sister and I, we are two ordinary girls. We are swimmers and we went to school. We had a normal life in Syria. We would go to school and then go swimming. Sometimes we would go over to my grandma’s or out with friends. Honestly, I’ve been dreaming about the Olympic games since I was 9 years old. Since I was young, I was always very stubborn. I think that was a good quality I had. Swimming helped me feel like I was home again when I was in Germany. I met new people and made new friends, so it felt like family and it made me feel at home again, faster than others felt. After everything happened, I’m just really proud of where we are today. I still can’t believe it, to be honest, even if I watch it a few times – I still can’t believe there is a movie about my life.

The film focuses a lot on your relationship with your sister. How has sisterhood played a role in your journey?

YM: Since we were young we were taught to take care of each other and to be there for each other. We always had this bond where she was there for me when I needed her. You could see in the movie that at times when I was vulnerable she was strong for me; and then the opposite when she was vulnerable, I was strong for her. In general, it was just a natural sister relationship. And it was very important to me and Sally, as she has two sisters and is a middle sister. It was emotional for her and for us. After we watched the movie, we hugged Sally and thanked her.

She said, “I really appreciate what you did, and it reminded me of how much I love my sisters.” I’m not going to lie, it brought us back together as well because we had a time where we kind of went our separate ways because she went back and volunteered in Greece, and I went to another city in Germany where I was not with my family because I wanted to focus on the Olympics. It really was amazing in so many ways. You can relate to it in so many ways if not the swimmer’s side, if not being an athlete… it’s not being a refugee or the war.

It takes a lot of work, effort, and dedication to become an Olympic athlete – and to do that after surviving war is something that very few people go through. How has your experience impacted who you are today?

YM: I grew up as a really shy kid. I would not imagine being here today. I was always with my mom. Wherever she went or whatever she did I was always behind her. You would see this little child hiding behind her mom all the time. I would not even go out of the building and play sometimes. I would sleep on a snowman waiting for my mom. This is literally how shy I was. Sara was the opposite. Sara would leave my mom and make friends at the park. Then she would come with three or four people, and say, “oh these are my friends.” I would have expected this life for her more than myself.

I took the chance at the Olympics, and I spoke a lot about my story.

But when I pushed the Olympic games the first time a lot of things changed. With the refugees, they took a chance on me, on us. I took the chance at the Olympics, and I spoke a lot about my story. The media helped when they talked about the refugee Olympic team – the first ever in the world. The team was amazing. At this stage, I realized I am really proud of who I am, but it’s not about me anymore. It’s about millions of people around the world, not just refugees – its about kids.

Sometimes kids send me messages on Instagram. They dressed up as me for Halloween, or they did a project about me and that made me really proud. It also made me realize the responsibility that I have right now. It’s not just my dream anymore. It’s people that are inspired by my story – and my sister’s story. That’s what made the book and now the movie, and I did not expect to be here. I love it, to be honest.

I am so proud of advocating for refugees and I really want to do something to change the perspective about them all over the world. I feel so lucky. Sally, the director of “The Swimmers” mentioned more than once how my story and Sara’s story is a success story.

There are so many success stories about refugees that are incredible. I met so many of them in Germany who built their own businesses and learned the language. They have Syrian restaurants or other Syrian businesses and I applaud them for that.

But the majority do not get to do what they want because they still feel homesick or they have not learned the language yet because it takes a lot of time. For me and Sara to realize we are lucky and we can do something with the opportunities we have made, why not? We are in a good place right now and we can help.

You are a huge inspiration to many Muslim girls all around the world. Do you have any advice you could give for making the impossible possible?

YM: I would tell them to be themselves. I know that it can be hard because women have limitations, or they say that we have limitations, or women should do that or should not do that. They have to raise the kids or they cannot work until they are 40, for example. I want to say that you do not have to stick to these cultural rules. That is one thing that I learned since I was young thanks to my parents.

My sister and I are two ordinary girls and my life changed in an instant.

I really hope that those girls believe in themselves and understand that they do not need any approval from anyone to be themselves. And this is exactly why I am who I am today. I hope that they work hard for their dreams and don’t give up on them just because people do not approve of it.

I had that so many times when people said “oh she is a swimmer?” or “it’s not something serious, you’ll never be anything important.” My sister and I are two ordinary girls and my life changed in an instant. So really believe in yourself, and do not wait for people to approve of your thoughts or your dreams for you to work on achieving them.

Have you been back home to Syria? If not, do you have any plans for that visit?

YM: Unfortunately, I haven’t been back because I have been a refugee for a few years now. I was not allowed to go back to my country because of my refugee status. I hope that one day I will go back to my country and visit it and hopefully try to rebuild it. I am really proud of where I come from and I would love to see my family again. I still have friends in Syria. This is my country. It is my home. I would love to visit and see everyone.

We are so excited to see what great things the future holds for Yusra, stream The Swimmers now on Netflix!