UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Yusra Mardini: “I am strong enough to make others believe in their dreams again.”
Our Q&A with the 19-year-old Olympic swimmer from Syria
When conflict forced them to flee their homes in Syria, Yusra Mardini and her sister Sarah found themselves in a broken down dinghy in the middle of the Mediterranean sea. Yusra and Sarah swam for three and half hours to push the boat ashore and save the lives of their 20 fellow refugees.
Yusra eventually made it to Germany — but her journey didn’t end there. Yusra competed as part of the first-ever refugee team at the 2016 Olympics in Rio and won her heat of the 100 metre butterfly. Now as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, Yusra advocates for the safety and rights of refugee populations around the world.
Malala Fund asked Yusra about her life before the Olympics, plans for the future and advise for girls.
Malala Fund (MF): Tell us something about yourself that most people don’t know.
Yusra (Y): I started swimming when I was 3 years old and I don’t like math.
MF: What are you most passionate about?
Y: I’m most passionate about swimming and helping people get the idea that nothing is impossible in this world.
MF: Tell us about your hometown and family.
Y: I was raised in Damascus, which is the capital of Syria. Damascus is well known as the city of Jasmine, because you can see Jasmines hanging on the walls of buildings.
I have two sisters, one is 22 and the other one is 9. My dad is a swimming coach and my mum is a physical therapist. I was raised in a family which is full of swimmers. My uncles were also swimmers. So I guess it’s tradition in our family to become a swimmer.
MF: What was it like to dream of becoming an Olympic swimmer growing up?
Y: It was a challenge for me. No one thought I’d ever be where I am right now because I am a girl. I worked hard and fought and I’m still fighting to prove that girls have as much power as men. They just have to believe in themselves.
MF: What has it been like achieving your dream and representing your country?
Y: It was such an honor for me representing not only my country, but millions [of refugees] around the world at the Olympics. Competing in the Refugee Olympic Team gave me a voice and it was one of the greatest moments of my life.
It made me realize that I am strong enough to make others believe in their dreams again.
MF: What is your advice for other aspiring girl athletes in your country and elsewhere?
Y: Keep dreaming no matter who says you can’t do it. The only one who can decide is you and only you. The world wouldn’t be standing today without girls and women. So chin up ’cause you’re a fighter.
MF: Tell us about school.
Y: School is going really well. My parents made sure I get good education and I’m lucky for that.
MF: What is your favorite subject in school?
Y: My favorite subjects are history, English and biology.
MF: How does education impact girls?
Y: Girls’ education is very important because it’s the weapon to keep moving and to build up a life. Each girl should have the right to education — no matter what.
MF: Who inspires you?
Y: My family. They’re supporting me with every [decision] I make and they believed in me.
MF: If you could say one thing to all male athletes, what would it be?
Y: I would say “thanks for being with us or against us.” They gave us motivation to be better.
MF: Other than swimming what do you like to do for fun? What are your hobbies?
Y: I draw and read books.
MF: What are your plans for the future?
Y: My plans are to keep moving forward [in swimming] and keep inspiring people. Represent and help refugees in the best way. And represent the power of girls — prove that we are strong and smart.
MF: What would you like to say to girl refugees around the world?
Y: I would like to say you have all of my respect, because I know how hard it is to start a new life. I hope you know you’re strong enough to keep fighting.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bhumika Regmi is social media associate at Malala Fund. She loves dogs and plans on naming her future puppy Mochi, after the Japanese treat.