Yusra Mardini

"Being a refugee is not a choice. Our choice is to die at home or risk death trying to escape." Yusra Mardini

Yusra Mardini (born March 1988) is an athlete, one of People magazine's 25 women changing the world, a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and one of Time Magazine's 30 most influential teens of 2016.

Butterfly tells the story of Yusra Mardini who as a young teenager in 2015, fled her hometown of Damascus when it became too dangerous to live in the war-torn country. Her journey took her through Europe to Berlin and from there to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. She subsequently became the youngest Goodwill Ambassador for the UN.

Yusra Mardini is eager to tell her story in the hopes that readers will remember that refugees are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, chased from their homes by a devastating war.

Yusra Mardini fled her native Syria to the Turkish coast in 2015 and boarded a small dinghy full of refugees bound for Greece. When the small and overcrowded boat's engine cut out, it began to sink. Yusra, her sister and two others took to the water, pushing the boat for three and a half hours in open water until they eventually landed on Lesbos, saving the lives of the passengers aboard.


Extracts from the book-

I’m just an ordinary girl. A swimmer. I had a normal life before the war. I never dreamt of being a hero. But now, after the Olympics, I have a voice, I have a mission. I want to inspire people and I want to show people who refugees really are.

So who are we? We’re human beings. No one chooses to be a refugee. I didn’t have a choice. I had to leave my home to survive, even if it meant risking death along the way. I have to keep spreading this message, because there will be more of us to come.  … They, like me, are searching for a future in which death doesn’t fall from the sky. A place to live out calm days after the storm.

Now, with the storm behind me, I focus on that peaceful future. I don’t believe the secret of being happy is living a life free of problems. It’s about being able to smile despite the hardships.  So I block out the negative voices and listen to those who believe in me. I surround myself with a team that has the same drive as I do. I’ve never been more certain that I’m meant to swim, my destiny lies in the pool. And overcoming the obstacles of the past years has only made me more determined.  It’s like my coach Ariel always says, limits exist only in your head. It’s simple. I’m an athlete and I’ll never give up.  One day, I’ll win.

It isn’t easy. There are times when I give everything and it still isn’t enough. Then I close my eyes and conjure that desperate moment in the sea when everything seemed hopeless. When the taunting voice told me to give up and get death over with. I remember how I fought, and won. How I kicked, kept my head above water, stayed alive. Then warmth surges through my whole body, bringing hidden reserves of power to my aching muscles. Opening my eyes, I know. Nothing can break me now. Whatever happens, I’ll get up. I’ll swim on. I’ll survive. I’ll emerge from the chrysalis as a butterfly.

Back in 2018, I left Berlin and moved alone to Hamburg to swim at the Olympic training centre there. I wanted to focus on achieving my absolute best before Tokyo, but the move wasn’t only about swimming. I’d been feeling a little overprotected. .. Life had got too comfortable and I wanted a challenge what would help me know myself better. I got just that, but it was a bit of a shock to find myself truly alone. Without the people I knew and loved around me, I struggled. I was sad about everything I had lost … and anxious for the future. I had hoped the calm days after the storm had arrived at last, but instead I spent a year battling bouts of depression and anxiety.

One thing I know for sure: professional athletes live under unbearable pressure, but few are prepared for how to deal with it. I’ve spent my life being taught how to excel physically, but I’ve never been guided on how to maintain my emotional wellbeing. Too often, the culture within sport encourages athletes in pain to just suck it up, keep pushing, and win at any cost. But no one prepares us for the time when that doesn’t work anymore, when the competition is over. I hope that’s beginning to change at last.


Listen to Yusra Mardini herself!

Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini swam to safety in Europe, then the Olympics | Al Jazeera Newsfeed