A Conversation with Yusra Mardini, Olympian, UN Goodwill Ambassador, Philanthropist & Refugee.

A Conversation with Yusra Mardini, Olympian, UN Goodwill Ambassador, Philanthropist & Refugee.

Born on March 5, 1998, in Damascus, Syria, Yusra Mardini grew up in a family that encouraged her passion for swimming. Training from a very young age she quickly rose to prominence as a competitive swimmer in her home country.

In 2015, as the conflict in Syria intensified, Yusra and her sister Sara fled their war-torn homeland in search of safety and a better future. They embarked on a perilous journey, crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece in a small, overcrowded dinghy. The boat’s engine failed, and with the lives of everyone on board at risk, Yusra, along with Sara and another passenger, jumped into the water and pushed the boat for hours until they reached the shore, saving the lives of those aboard. Their harrowing journey eventually led Yusra to seek refuge in Germany. Despite the challenges of being displaced and adjusting to a new country, Yusra never gave up on her dreams. She joined a local swimming club in Berlin, where her exceptional talent caught the attention of coaches and the public alike.

Yusra’s swimming abilities and her incredible story captured the world’s attention during the 2016 Rio Olympics. She competed as a member of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team, showcasing the strength and resilience of displaced athletes. Yusra’s participation not only highlighted the plight of refugees but also served as a powerful reminder of the transformative power of sport. Beyond her athletic achievements, Yusra Mardini has used her platform to advocate for refugees and raise awareness about their struggles. Through her foundation, she has become a voice for millions of displaced people, emphasising the importance of compassion, understanding, and support for those seeking refuge. In 2017, she was appointed the youngest ever UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador at age 19.  Her and Sara’s story is depicted in the 2022 Netflix film “The Swimmers.” In 2023, the Mardini sisters were named TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in The World.

In this interview, I speak to Yusra Mardini about her extraordinary journey fleeing conflict in Syria and how she went on to achieve Olympic success. We discuss the realities of life for refugees, the challenges faced by displaced populations and how the world can do better. Yusra and her sister’s story is depicted in the 2022 Netflix film The Swimmers, and she became the youngest ever UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador.

Q: What makes swimming such a powerful sport?

[Yusra Mardini]: … swimming stands out as one of the sports with the lowest injury rates globally, which speaks volumes. It engages more muscles than most other sports, a feat not all activities can boast. But for me, swimming transcended mere physical activity. It served as a conduit for life lessons, embodying the essence of its beauty. It taught me discipline, respect for others, and how to navigate the fine line between friendship and competition, as well as delineating the boundaries between family life and sporting commitments. With my father as my coach, the dynamic was strictly professional in the pool; I could only address him as ‘coach,’ and received no preferential treatment. In fact, the expectations were even higher.

This, to me, is the true allure of swimming or any sport: the opportunity to glean significant life insights through athletic engagement. Upon arriving in Germany, swimming became my sanctuary during a time when I had no other home. Being new to the country and unfamiliar with its swimming culture, the sport offered me solace and a sense of belonging. It provided a common language that allowed me to connect with others effortlessly, facilitating a smoother integration into German society.

In essence, swimming holds a unique place in my heart. It is much more than a sport; it’s a special journey that has significantly shaped my life.

Q: Where did you find the resilience to endure the ordeal of displacement?

[Yusra Mardini]: …reflecting back, my stubborn nature as a child played a pivotal role. I recall an incident where my dad, dissatisfied with my minimal practice under a lenient coach, tossed me into the pool to test my swimming skills. Ironically, this act led me to feign inability to swim, a misinterpretation corrected only recently by my mother who informed me that my actual protest was inaction, a silent statement against what I perceived as unfair. This incident encapsulates my ethos: refusing to partake in anything against my will.

This stubbornness was further highlighted during a significant hiatus from swimming at 15, amidst the turmoil of war. My father had left the country, leaving me to navigate adolescence in rebellion, seeking normalcy in defiance. That year was transformative—cutting my hair, getting a piercing, and quitting swimming symbolised a personal revolution, leading me to realize my participation in the sport was for my own sake, not merely to fulfil my father’s expectations.

My resilience, I believe, is inherited from my parents. They, ordinary in every sense, achieved the extraordinary for us, their children, striving to offer opportunities they never had. My father’s dedication, accompanying us every step of practice, and my mother’s nurturing care, from drying our hair to providing endless support, showcased their problem-solving ethos. They embodied perseverance, teaching me to distinguish a bad day from a bad life, to persist, and to adapt, stepping back from swimming only to approach it with renewed vigour when necessary.

My parents’ immense influence, coupled with my stubbornness, shaped my journey. Additionally, my sister’s unique and unyielding spirit inspired me. Admiring her defiance against convention and challenges from a young age, I aspired to embody her resilience and strength, learning immensely from her example.

Q: What was the spark of inspiration that led to the creation of your foundation?

[Yusra Mardini]: Giving back has been on my mind for the past few years. Sven and I have discussed it repeatedly, concluding that it was time to establish the foundation. I wasn’t entirely convinced I was ready, but sometimes, taking intimidating steps is necessary. The aim of our foundation is to facilitate access to education and sports, with a particular emphasis on sports. For me, sports were a sanctuary, the only place where I felt at home, could connect with others, and navigate my life and pain.

In conversations with the UNHCR team responsible for me, I questioned the prioritisation of sports amidst seemingly more critical needs. However, they enlightened me about the desire among refugees for their children to have routines and semblances of normal life, even in a camp setting. This was vividly illustrated during my visit to Jordan’s Za’atari camp, where trailers doubled as classrooms. One trailer, dedicated to English classes, housed girls who were incredibly passionate about their studies. This experience led me to imagine the positive impact of integrating sports breaks with academic sessions, aiding in the gradual realisation of their aspirations, even within the confines of a camp.

Ideally, I’d eliminate refugee camps altogether, creating homes for everyone. Yet, given the current realities, providing sports opportunities to children, women, and men in these settings is vital. Many NGOs already focus on essential aid and medical needs, so our foundation aims to complement these efforts by introducing sports. Additionally, we plan to support athletes in the Refugee Olympic Team, emphasising not just participation in sports but also backing these athletes significantly.

We are collaborating with the IOC and the Refugee Foundation on a project to resettle athletes who have participated in the Olympics through IOC scholarships but must return to camps afterward. It’s disheartening, and we are exploring resettlement possibilities in Canada for some of these athletes. This initiative is a significant part of our ongoing efforts.

Q: Does sports help to unify and integrate refugees with the local population?

[Yusra Mardini]: … my journey in sports has been a profound learning experience, taking time to fully grasp its breadth. Initially, my focus was purely competitive. I remember moments when Sven would ask if I had fun during a race, and I’d be puzzled—how could I have fun if I didn’t achieve the time I aimed for? I’m grateful to him for teaching me to find joy in the process and understand that sports transcend the pursuit of gold medals.

My appreciation also extends to my team. Stepping into the Olympic stadium in 2016, I realised my dream was no longer just mine. It was about conveying a global message, demonstrating that regardless of whether we’re refugees or not, collaboration is possible. We can unite as a team from diverse backgrounds, inspiring passion and support across the globe. The opening ceremony, with its multitude of nations, underscored the beauty and necessity of this message: together, we thrive; there’s room for everyone on this planet.

This is the essence of learning through sports. Children in refugee camps, for example, learn to forge friendships, compete healthily, and share—lessons I’ve absorbed from sports. The Olympics elevate this understanding; there, athletes’ origins become secondary. You don’t dwell on their life stories; their athletic prowess and the spirit of competition captivate you. The focus is on their dedication and the culmination of years, sometimes lifetimes, of preparation, free from the constraints of politics and geographical divides.

Indeed, sports wield an unparalleled power to unite, educate, and inspire, showcasing the essence of human endeavour and communal harmony.

Q: How do you stay motivated to do this work, against such challenging rhetoric surrounding refugees and displaced people?

[Yusra Mardini]: This drive to excel and connect with like-minded individuals, with those who share Sven‘s perspective, has been a pivotal force for me. Arriving in Germany, I was uncertain if I’d find a supportive community, one that valued my principles. Yet, this uncertainty has never deterred us; rather, it fuels our determination. I’m a firm believer in the inherent goodness of the world, although I acknowledge that some views can be narrow-minded, fixated on possession and territorial claims. But ultimately, life is about sharing experiences, embracing diversity, and recognising that goodness and flaws exist in everyone, not just refugees.

Having acquired a German passport, I question the barriers faced by refugees seeking safe passage. Why should their journey to a new life be any different from anyone else seeking change or challenges? Especially in places like the UK, where the richness of culture is celebrated through diverse cuisines, it’s evident that everyone benefits from openness and diversity. This realization has only deepened my appreciation for the cultural mosaic, particularly in vibrant, diverse settings like LA and USC, where I encounter individuals from across the globe.

The notion that refugees aim to usurp others’ opportunities is a misconception. Excellence and dedication secure positions, not nationality. If a refugee excels, it’s a call for self-improvement, not resentment. My goal, alongside my team, is to build enduring contributions, fostering understanding that individual efforts can catalyse significant change. Despite facing criticism and scepticism, the aim is to demonstrate through our actions that coexistence is not only possible but enriching. We aspire to leave a legacy of unity and support, proving that change is achievable and beneficial for all.

Q: How can nations do better for refugees?

[Yusra Mardini]: …there are two particularly stark realities to confront. Firstly, the idea of deporting individuals to far-off places like Rwanda strikes me as profoundly absurd. It’s bewildering, especially in the UK, where many in positions of power, despite being native-born, have ancestries tracing back to other nations. Yet, some of these very individuals advocate for sending refugees as far away as possible, a stance I find incomprehensible.

People seeking refuge don’t often have the luxury of choice. It’s not about selecting a preferred destination but finding a safe passage with the least risk. Many inquire why I chose Germany; the answer is straightforward—they welcomed us. Had another nearby country like Greece been as welcoming, my journey might have ended there. It’s never been about whims or preferences but about safety, the possibility of a future, and the ability to build a life and family. The finer things in life can be earned anywhere with hard work, regardless of one’s status as a refugee.

Most refugees love their homeland. Before the war, Syria was a place of warmth, hospitality, and security, where doors remained open until nightfall. When refugees leave, it’s out of necessity, not choice. The least that governments can do is provide safe passage, recognising that refugees deserve to live and have opportunities just like anyone else.

The pushback against refugees, be it in France, the UK, Italy, or elsewhere, is disheartening. In Italy, for instance, there are untold hardships faced by refugees that remain largely unknown. It’s heart-wrenching to see governments opt to repel refugees, risking their lives rather than integrating them into society.

The scenes of refugees being forced back to perilous waters or deported without knowledge of their destination, separated from their families, are horrifying. Such injustices aren’t confined to one region; in Latin America, family separations among refugees are all too common. These dire circumstances call for a spotlight, a push for political change, though I recognise it’s a long road ahead. Despite my optimism, I’m aware that meaningful change will require time and concerted effort.

Q: What are the projects your foundation is currently delivering to make an impact?

[Yusra Mardini]: We are currently working on the development of the first projects. One is a resettlement program for athletes from the Refugee Olympic Athletes Program of the International Olympic Committee. We want to give athletes the opportunity to get out of refugee status and start an academic career.

We are also working with the first partners to develop concepts that offer refugees access to sport on a broad scale. Coincidentally, the first project is a swimming initiative. If it all works out like that, it would be really cool – as a swimmer.

Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?

[Yusra Mardini]: As an athlete, there’s this inherent drive, not selfishness per se, but a natural human desire to constantly seek more, to achieve better. This mindset has permeated every aspect of my life, leading to moments of profound introspection. In 2023, I found myself questioning my efforts incessantly: Did I do enough advocacy? Did we raise sufficient funds? Despite my relentless dedication—flying back to Europe monthly for advocacy—I still wrestled with the feeling of inadequacy, recognising the vast expanse of work still ahead in philanthropy.

My aspiration for my legacy transcends personal recognition. I envision a future where my name might not be remembered, but the foundation’s impact endures, actively making a difference even in my absence. When I established the foundation, I conveyed to my team my unwavering support, emphasising that my motive wasn’t to garner acclaim for founding an organisation. Instead, my goal is for the foundation to function independently of my name, to persist and aid others as long as possible.

Ultimately, the legacy I yearn for is to be remembered for doing everything within my power to effect positive change in the world. That, to me, encapsulates the essence of what I strive for.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.