Autobiography tells story of how she helped save fellow refugees stranded on dinghy before inspiring the world at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games
BY: DAVID CROSSLAND
A Syrian girl who helped save fellow refugees stranded on an inflatable dinghy in the Aegean Sea, and later competed in swimming at the 2016 Olympics, has told her traumatic story in an autobiography to be published next month.
Yusra Mardini, now 20, subsequently became the youngest ever UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, meeting Barack Obama and Pope Francis and inspiring other refugees with a simple message: never give up.
Her book, titled Butterfly, an advance copy of which has been seen by The National, reveals how she and elder sister Sara paid smugglers $1,500 each to cross from Turkey to Greece, after they fled war-torn Damascus. They were packed into an overloaded four-metre dinghy that looked like a toy for tourists when they set off to reach Europe in August 2015.
Fifteen minutes into the journey toward the Greek island of Lesbos, only 10 kilometres away, in choppy seas, the boat’s engine died and with the occupants being tossed around helplessly by high waves, it seemed doomed to sink. The passengers began praying but one man, Muhannad, who could not swim, slid into the sea and clung to a rope that ran along the side of the boat, in an effort to lighten the load.
Yusra and Sara, who had also swam internationally for Syria, also jumped into the water to try and stop the boat capsizing, clinging on to try and keep the flimsy dinghy headed in the right direction. The book tells how the sisters swallowed sea water while being buffeted by waves, their eyes stinging and muscles stinging while passengers – including families with small children – frantically used their mobile phones to try and summon help.
They eventually made contact with the Greek coastguard who simply told them to turn back, but they could not reach the Turkish coastguard.
The Mardini sisters clung on for three hours, swallowing sea water, their eyes stinging, muscles aching from the cold, and skin chafing from their life jackets. Yusra’s legs seized up and the rope cut burns into her palms. Another, bigger boat filled with refugees sped past, ignoring their cries for help as the sun set and darkness fell.
Suddenly, the engine sputtered back to life after repeated efforts to pull on the engine’s cord. The sisters, who had been in the water longest while the male passengers took turns to help them, climbed back in the boat. Shivering with cold, Sara volunteered for one last stint in the water to reduce the dinghy’s weight and they landed on a Lesbos beach.
“Being a refugee is not a choice,” said Yusra, revealing that she hates the word as it dehumanises people and evokes thoughts of borders, barbed wire, bureaucracy and humiliation.
“Our choice is to die at home or risk death trying to escape,” she added.
Her story is being made into a feature film by Stephen Daldry, director of Billy Elliot, The Hours and The Reader. In Damascus, Ms Mardini had lived through four years of escalating conflict in which friends were killed by air strikes and shelling.
She decided to leave after a rocket propelled grenade smashed through the ceiling of the building where she was training — she survived only because it failed to explode, and lay green and shimmering at the bottom of the swimming pool.
Having reached Greece, the refugees encountered both kindness and hostility as they joined tens of thousands of fellow Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis on an odyssey on foot, by ferry, car, bus and train through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria. Their near-death at sea welded the group together and spurred them on towards their final destination, Germany.
Gripping and movingly narrated, the book conveys the horror of refugees escaping conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan through names and faces.
Ms Mardini recounts how they were particularly badly treated in Hungary, where smugglers cheated them each out of hundreds of euros and police humiliated them, locking them in a stable, hurling bad food over the gate and then taking them in a pitch-black van to a refugee camp.
In the late summer of 2015, when the refugee crisis peaked, Ms Mardini was among tens of thousands stranded at Budapest train station just as Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to let them travel to Germany in a humanitarian gesture that temporarily suspended an EU rule that asylum claims should be handled in the country where migrants first arrive.
Partly as a result of Ms Merkel’s open-border policy, 890,000 asylum-seekers arrived in Germany in 2015. Ms Mardini and her sister were among them, reassured by the “Refugees Welcome” signs that greeted them as their train arrived at Munich station.
They were taken to Berlin, where the story of their courage attracted increased attention. Ms Mardini, 17 at the time, resumed her swimming with her ultimate goal in mind: to compete in the Olympics. Helped by a German coach, she trained and came to the attention of the International Olympic Committee which was forming a refugee team to compete in the Rio games in 2016.
In the book, she writes that she initially balked at the thought of swimming for a refugee team because she did not want to be defined as stateless, feeling it smacked of charity. But she changed her mind, convinced it was her chance to be a role model to others who have fled war, by showing it is possible to prevail.
She was named in People magazine’s 2016 list of those changing the world, currently lives in Berlin and is training for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It is unclear if she would swim for another refugee team, or for Germany or Syria.