Olympic Swimmer Yusra Mardini: ‘We have to open our minds and hearts to refugees’ 1

Olympic Swimmer Yusra Mardini: ‘We have to open our minds and hearts to refugees’

Yusra Mardini is not your average 23-year-old. She’s an Olympic swimmer, author and a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador. She’s also a Syrian refugee. Born in 1998, Mardini grew up in an active family – her mother, physiotherapist, and her father, a swimming coach – and swam competitively with high hopes of representing Syria abroad.

But a few years after the Syrian conflict started in 2011, which has since left more than 380,000 people dead, Mardini and her sister, Sarah, fled the country searching for a safer, more promising future. We caught up with Mardini to hear about her story, swimming career and activism work.


“After the Syrian war had been going on for about five years, my sister and I fled the country because we wanted to live in a safe place and have a better chance at life. Of course, my parents weren’t supportive in the beginning because it’s a very risky and dangerous journey for two girls to make. But somehow, we convinced them; then we made our way through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Vienna [Austria], and finally Germany.”

“The boat journey between Turkey and Greece was supposed to take about 45 minutes maximum. But it took us 2.5 hours because the motor stopped after 15 minutes. My sister [who is also a competitive swimmer] and I had to jump overboard to stabilize the dinghy [which had about 20 other migrants inside]. We swam with one hand – the other arm was wrapped around ropes on the dinghy – until we got to the other side of the Aegean Sea.”


“Once we got to Germany in 2015, we stayed in a refugee camp. At the camp, I met a translator and told him, ‘Hey, I am a professional swimmer and would love to continue swimming’ That’s really the only thing I said. Then he contacted a swimming club in Berlin, which asked him to bring my sister and me in for a swimming test. And they were very, very surprised by the results. So we started swimming again just a few months after arriving.”

“Since I didn’t have enough money to train, I applied for a scholarship and got it. At the same time, the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team was formed to compete at the Olympic Games. And then I learned that my name was on the roster [of 10 swimmers] – I was in shock.”

“At the time, I was young, and I wasn’t proud immediately. I didn’t want people to think that I was just a refugee and didn’t earn my spot to compete [at the Olympics]. But then, my parents told me something that is very, very true.”

“They said, ‘Even if you don’t remember how hard you worked for this, we remember. Because we worked hard with you, too.’ So I competed for the first Refugee Olympic Team in the 2016 Olympics in Rio, where I swam [the 100m freestyle and 100m butterfly]. That was a crazy point in life.”

Yusra Mardini's Story: A Refugee Olympian - BORGEN


“When I went to the Olympics, I realized that it is not about me – it’s about the thousands of refugees around the world. Since then, I’ve been advocating for refugees. I’ve been very proud of who I am and the journey I’ve made.”

“In 2017, I became the youngest ever Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR when I was 19. Working with UNHCR, I visit refugee camps, speak at high-level events, get to meet lots of refugees and advocate for them around the world, which is amazing.”

“Wherever I go, I share my story and the stories of other refugees to help people understand that these are real people and these stories are still happening. I want to raise more awareness about the issue, and I hope to inspire people to donate or make a small change.”

“I also want to make refugees feel welcome and remind them that they have a chance. I am a human being just like them, and I went through a tough journey as well, but here I am. I’m still here, still trying. They can get through it, too.”

“We have a lot of work to do on this issue. We have to open our minds and hearts to refugees. We have to start doing something because, unfortunately, many refugees are being forced to return to dangerous places. Yesterday, Poland sent refugees [from the Middle East] back to Belarus. People are starving in the woods going back and forth between countries, and no one is letting them in.”

“And then you hear about the pushback in the UK. And pushback in Italy. And it is very, very sad. No country in the world is all made up of ‘native’ people. You can’t say that Germany is full of native Germans, you know? We all somehow migrated at one point and formed the world. “So why don’t we have a better system? We have a space in every country for more people. Just let them in, help them for a few months, and they’ll stand on their own feet again. They will work. I know that for a fact.”

“We need a solution. Unfortunately, these crises are still going on, and research shows that millions of people will be migrating due to climate change in the next few years. We should have a system around the world to welcome those people no matter where they’re coming from or why.”


“Even if you’re just an average person, you can talk about this issue more, raise awareness, welcome refugees. And if governments don’t want to say ‘Welcome Refugees’, we can learn from other movements, like Black Lives Matter; when we stand together, we can make a difference.”

“We can also put ourselves in their position. We can say, ‘If today there’s a tornado because of climate change and it destroys my house, would I want people to be kind to me and help me or not?’ Just ask yourself this question.”

“If you care about this issue, you have to act now and start being more open and engaged. Start helping in any way possible. I’m not saying you should donate thousands of dollars, but educate yourself and others about refugees. Be kinder to them and make them feel welcome. They just want a safe place to live. There are a lot of misconceptions and fear. But I think it’s important to change public perception and encourage understanding.”

“In Germany [which granted Mardini asylum], they handled it quite okay. In the beginning, it was tough, but I feel like Germany is my home now. Canada has opened doors to many refugees. Other countries, like Sweden, have also tried to be more welcoming to refugees. These actions have meaning; some refugees have had a chance to rebuild their lives. Some countries are trying to do something, but one or two is not enough to help millions.”

Yusra Mardini looking towards second Games in Tokyo


“The Global Citizen Forum (GCF) is a place where lots of important people speak, so people really listen – they know it’s serious. I think the GCF really makes a difference, and they always have goals set up for many years ahead.”

“They’re working on changing things in the world – not just talking about it. These events bring together many important people who can help us raise money and awareness for refugees. That also gives me a chance to make new connections and discuss solutions, too.”

“The most important thing to me is to make a difference and lead to changes for refugees. I just want to let people know that refugees are normal people, and we need to help them.”