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Syrian Refugee Turned Olympic Swimmer Faces Fears In Return To Budapest

‘I promised myself that I would come back here differently.’ by Jolene Latimer

September 5, 2017
Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini. Image by ONU Brasil/YouTube.

“When I heard I was coming to Hungary again, I was afraid,” says Yusra Mardini. The 19-year-old Syrian refugee spent time living on the streets of Budapest two summers ago en route to Germany as she fled the war in her homeland. Her experience was so terrible that she never wanted to return. But her swimming career demanded she return to Hungary. In July, Budapest was the location of the 2017 FINA World Championships, which are important to Mardini because since her first trip to Hungary, she became an Olympic swimmer.

Mardini made headlines last summer competing in Rio at the 2016 Olympic Games for the first-ever Team Refugees. But the harrowing experiences she had in Hungary just two short years ago don’t feel far away despite all she’s accomplished since then.

“It was hard because I slept at train stations,” Mardini says in an interview, remembering her first time in Budapest. “I slept on the floor.”

Her homelessness in Hungary, where she clashed with police and was despised by locals, was itself a miracle — one she only achieved through swimming.

Mardini was one of the thousands of refugees to cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece. She left Syria with her sister, Sarah — the two teenagers convinced they had no future in their homeland. Shortly into their trip across the water, the small dinghy they were packed into began to sink.

Only Mardini and her sister knew how to swim — their father had been a swim coach in Syria before the war. Both girls jumped into the water to drag the boat to safety, an endeavor that took hours.

“The first thing I was thinking about, before even death, was salt in my eyes and in my mouth and in my nose.”

As she tasted the salty water and struggled against the waves, Mardini’s life began to flash before her eyes. “I just remembered the events of my life passing through me,” she says.

Eventually, the swimmers pulled the boat to Greece, launching the girls on another journey — this time overland through Europe. In Hungary, Mardini remembers only one kind encounter.

“There was a taxi driver who knew I was a refugee,” she says. “He was driving fast to get away from the police because they saw us.” She adds: “It was like a Hollywood movie how fast he was driving. I don’t know if he’ll ever remember me but I’m really thankful for this guy.”

When Mardini arrived in Germany, she found a local swim club and got in the pool. It was the swim club that gave her a community in the new country. She found it a supportive system that helped her adjust and, at times, even helped her with necessities like finding a place to stay.

“When we met the first time, we just got together and ate dinner with her sister,” says her first coach, Sven Spannekrebs.

“We just tried to find a way to communicate,” he says. “I’m not talking about language.”

He explains that they had to learn to navigate the cultural differences. “I never was so close to someone from the Arabic world. I had Arab friends but no one so close like that, never before. We made a way. It has to do with trust.”

Spannekrebs is now one of the most trusted people in Mardini’s life. Though he doesn’t coach her in the pool anymore — they leave that to Ariel Rodriguez — Spannekrebs acts as Mardini’s manager and travels the world with her, promoting her message.

“She opened our minds in many different ways,” he says.

“I never knew what a refugee meant until I was one,” Mardini says. “We are humans who lost our home. I didn’t choose to lose my home. I didn’t choose for there to be a war in my home.”

Image by ONU Brasil/YouTube.

When she’s not swimming, this is the message that Mardini is trying to spread. She’s a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and has optioned the story of her life to Working Title Films.

“I never imagined that my life story would be in a book or a movie,” Mardini says. “My story is hard, but there are more stories that are harder, or at least the same.”

She says her experience is a good example for both refugees and those helping them. “Maybe the crisis isn’t from your land, but maybe you should put yourself in their position.” At the same time, she believes she can be an example for refugees. “There are a huge percent of them who say, ‘I am a refugee, what do you expect of me?’”

In the beginning, she says, she also had a hard time calling herself a refugee. But that changed.

“A lot of people are looking for me as an example for them,” Mardini says. “So I promised myself that I will try as hard as I can. Because you can not say that I am not lucky to be here.”

That’s why she got on the plane to go back to Budapest and compete at the World Championships despite the bad memories that plagued her.

“I promised myself that I would come back here differently,” she says. She was given the chance at life that she so desperately craved when she first arrived in Budapest. She wanted to come back to show it was possible to make something with that chance.

“This is an example,” she says, “to never give up.” 

Image by ONU Brasil/YouTube.

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