By Theresa Gonzalez
Yusra Mardini was already a professional swimmer at 17, supported by the Syrian Olympic Committee and representing her country at the 2012 FINA World Swimming Championships. But Syria’s devastating civil war made training increasingly difficult for her as events were cancelled, facilities where she would train were targeted and her dreams of going to the Olympic Games were overcome by the realities of war. In a video provided by the International Olympic Committee, she recalls swimming in a pool and looking up at the sky. The roof had been struck by bombs. When her home was destroyed, her hopes of resolution vanished.
Last August, Mardini and her sister Sarah, also a swimmer, fled Damascus for Beirut, Istanbul and finally Izmir in Turkey, where they managed to squeeze onto a dinghy that held 20 people (rather than the six or seven meant for its capacity). Within half an hour, the motor stopped and the overcrowded boat began to capsize. In an effort to keep the boat afloat, passengers began to toss their luggage—their only possessions—overboard, but it wasn’t enough. Mardini, her sister and the only other person who knew how to swim dove into action, clinging to a rope off the side of the boat and swimming for more than three hours in the chillly Aegan Sea to bring the boat to safety along the shores of Greece.
That was just the start of a perilous journey that eventually brought Mardini and her sister to a refugee camp in Berlin, where they were connected with a local swimming club. Today Mardini, now 18, lives and trains in Berlin and has since been reunited with her mother, father and another sister. Mardini is also the newest member of Team Visa Rio and has been chosen to compete as part of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in August, exactly one year after Mardini and her sister boarded the boat in Turkey.
As a member of Team Visa Rio, Mardini will join a group of world-class Olympic and Paralympic Games athletes who embody Visa’s values of acceptance, partnership and innovation, including fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first Muslim-American woman to compete in a hijab at the Olympic Games and Iranian-born Raheleh Asemani, the first refugee athlete ever to qualify for the Olympic sport of taekwondo (she recently became a Belgian citizen and will proudly compete with Team Belgium). Through the program, Visa has supported more than 1,000 Olympic and Paralympic Games hopefuls by providing them with financial and marketing exposure in the run up to and during the Olympic Games.
Hoping to be an inspiration to refugees around the world, Mardini tells The Guardian: “I want to make all the refugees proud of me. It would show that even if we had a tough journey, we can achieve something.”
Theresa Gonzalez is a senior writer for Visa and the author of two Chronicle Books titles. She lives in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter @theresagonzalez.
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