A sporting chance

Refugee Olympian Yusra Mardini has launched her own foundation to provide sporting opportunities to displaced youth.

In 2015, Yusra Mardini fled the war in Syria with her sister, travelling from Damascus to Beirut to Istanbul, and then literally swimming to Europe when the boat the teenagers had paid to take them to the Greek Island of Lesbos began to sink.

Once in Europe, the pair walked and hitched lifts across seven countries to finally find sanctuary in Germany. And less than 12 months later, Mardini, took part in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro as a member of the first ever Refugee Olympic Athletes team, under the Olympic flag.

Seven years and a second Olympics later, the now 25-year-old - whose life has been made into a Netflix film - has launched the Yusra Mardini Foundation to deliver sports programmes and opportunities to young people living in refugee camps around the world.

“When I arrived in Germany, the thing that gave me hope was swimming,” Mardini tells Philanthropy Age in an interview. “I am focussing my foundation on sports development so that other young refugees can also have hope, as well as just feel normal, because that is really, really important.”

The foundation, which Mardini has co-founded with Sven Spannekrebs, her former Olympic swimming coach, is registered in Germany and the US.

Mardini says she is still working out some of the details, but she wants to raise funding to be able to roll out sports projects for young refugees, initially in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey – where more than five million Syrian refugees currently reside.

Global displacement reaches record levels

The number of people displaced by war, persecution, violence, and human rights abuses stood at a record 108.4 million at the end of last year, up 19.1 million on 2021 earlier, according to UNHCR's 2022 Global Trends in Forced Displacement.

More than half of the world's displaced come from three countries: Syria (6.5 million), Ukraine (5.7 million) and Afghanistan (5.7 million). 

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Yusra Mardini was a member of the first ever Refugee Olympic Athletes team, competing in the Rio de Janeiro games in 2016 under the Olympic flag. (UNHCR)

Speaking to Philanthropy Age on the sidelines of a Dubai screening of “The Swimmers”, the Bafta-nominated blockbuster about her life to-date hosted by UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, Mardini says she’d never thought about refugees until she became one.

“At first, I hated being called a refugee because in my mind, I had a home and I would go back there one day,” she recalls, explaining how she had initially not wanted to travel to Rio as a member of the refugee Olympic team. “I wanted people to know that I was going because of how hard I had worked, not because of what had happened to me,” she says.

But the moment the then-18-year-old and her nine teammates entered the stadium, everything changed. “There were so many people standing, clapping, cheering, holding up messages for us, and at that moment, I realised that it wasn’t just my dream anymore, it was about something far bigger: I had a voice and I needed to use it to help other refugees.”

In 2017, one year after Rio, Mardini became a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, the youngest at the time to be appointed to a role typically held by celebrities.

Mardini admits she didn’t really know what the position would entail but she soon found her groove, travelling around the world speaking to young people who had been displaced.

“I understand what they are going through,” she says, adding: “My message is ‘this isn’t the end’ and ‘just because you’ve been through something horrific, you can start over and try again’.”

“At that moment, I realised that it wasn’t just my dream anymore, it was about something far bigger: I had a voice and I needed to use it to help other refugees.”

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Yusra's journey to Europe with her sister Sara has been made into a Netflix film. In June, Yusra came to the UAE for a private screening and a panel discussion about her experiences. Photo: UNHCR.

Mardini has a message for politicians too. She laments that so few refugees are involved in policies that affect refugees and says that decision makers are too detached from the reality of people’s experiences.

Saddened by the sinking of the migrant boat off Greece days earlier, and frustrated by the growth of right-wing anti-migrant rhetoric that is taking hold in large swathes of Europe, Mardini says: “There’s enough space on this planet for everyone.” And adds: “No-one will steal your job if you’re good at it.”

It is Mardini’s belief in her own voice – and giving voice to others – that has taken her now to the Unites States, where she has just completed her freshman year of Film and TV Production at the prestigious University of Southern California (USC).

“I want to tell other people’s stories, especially those whose voices are not often heard,” she says. “I feel like I have a really powerful voice and even when I am gone, I want to leave a legacy to change this world to make it better.” - PA