The boat haunts Yusra Mardini wherever she goes. “Some people ask me, ‘What were you thinking when you were on the boat, drowning?’” the 20-year-old Olympic swimmer tells me during a rare break from training in Berlin. She has no idea. “It was a blurry moment; it was scary. I had salt in my eyes.” Context is easy for Mardini – but when it comes to describing the deeply personal feelings her brush with death evoked, everything intensifies. Words seem strangely redundant. “It makes me sad to explain it over and over again,” she says, proceeding hesitantly. For Mardini, the past is still painfully present, no matter how many times you trace over the lines.
It’s been three years since Mardini’s legs kicked against the merciless current, miles off the coast of the Greek island of Lesbos. In 2015, the inflatable dinghy transporting Mardini away from war-torn Syria – and towards the perceived safety of Europe – nearly submerged in the depths of the Aegean sea. Despite the panic that ensued, Mardini and her sister (both trained swimmers) calmly lowered themselves into the water along with two other passengers, guiding the propellerless boat for three hours before drifting ashore. Miraculously, all 18 refugees on board survived. A year later, Mardini would go on to compete in the 100m butterfly at the Rio Olympics, as part of the newly formed Refugee Olympic team, fulfilling a lifelong dream. At 19, she became the UNHCR’s youngest Goodwill Ambassador. Today, the German capital of Berlin is, officially, her home-away-from-home.
“It’s not a story that you hear every day,” Mardini admits as we, once again, retrace her perilous journey to Europe after her family home in Damascus was destroyed – a journey, she roughly calculates, she’s now recounted over 500 times to journalists like myself. When the young Olympic athlete’s backstory emerged, media outlets heightened the drama to satisfy a hungry audience, trading fact for clickbait embellishments. Eighteen terrified passengers became 150. One Arabic newspaper even had the Syrian sisters improbably swimming from Greece to Germany. Messages on social media called her a “liar” and a “fraud”. Perhaps this is why Mardini decided to finally write about her journey to Europe – in part, to reclaim her own narrative, free of hyperbole and spin. “It was hard but it also reminded me why I did this trip and why I’m here right now,” she says. Does she feel she has a responsibility to speak up on behalf of all refugees who lack a platform to express themselves? “Yes, I do,” she answers instantly, unequivocally, “because they believe in me.”
This week, Mardini’s memoir, Butterfly, will hit bookshelves, recounting her own story in her own words – or, to quote the subtitle, “From refugee to Olympian – my story of rescue, hope and triumph”. It’s a searingly honest account that debunks what it means to be a refugee; what it means to be Yusra Mardini, too. “I guess they wanted a hero,” she writes. “All I ever wanted was to swim.”
I was not afraid – and I am not ashamed of who I am. If you want to deal with me like that, then you are the weak person in your mind, not me
In the media scrum for Mardini’s boat story, another was lost – the nuanced account of a regular teenager’s gamble for a better life, away from roof-ripping bombs, blackouts and treacherous checkpoints. Free to swim, to train, to compete. Being a refugee is not a choice, Mardini reminds us. “A lot of people think that refugees just saw an opportunity to leave their country and go out to Europe, but I want to say that we fled our home because of the violence and the war,” she says. “It’s a hard decision to make, to leave everything behind you – your family, your friends, your childhood,” she says. “We left all of that behind us just to make the journey because we had hope to live in a peaceful place again.”
Butterfly should be required reading for everyone, I tell Mardini – not least because of the ways in which it challenges a word so often used to ostracise those seeking a better, safer life. It’s a word she struggled to identify with – because, frankly, how could anyone be expected to identify with a homogenous noun like “refugee”? For Mardini, the process is ever-evolving. “I didn’t accept it at the beginning,” she tells me. “I wasn’t comfortable with it because I felt ashamed. I faced a lot of embarrassing stuff on the way, you know? The bread we were offered – you can’t even eat this bread; living in a tent, having only one bag.” Mardini does a lot of refugee myth-busting in the book, challenging the misconceptions that still stifle our understanding of the 65.6 million people who are forcibly displaced around the world. “They think I had a tent and not a house,” Mardini says, tackling them head-on. “A lot of people think I was living in a desert. There’s this image about Syria that I just wanna change. Me and my sister paid €10,000 to do this trip.” I don’t need Mardini to remind me, but she does anyway – “This is a lot of money.”
Despite the vast money spent, Mardini’s passage to safety was marred by hazardous locations, dangerous situations and exploitative people. Along the way, she and her sister encountered both the best and the worst that humanity has to offer. When the sisters finally reached Lesbos – thirsty, bruised, near collapse – one restaurant owner refused to sell the sisters water, shooing them away like stray dogs. Minutes later, a young Greek woman handed over her trainers. The contradictory schism wasn’t lost on Mardini. “You find the good and the bad wherever you go,” she says. And yet, despite the bigotry and brutality (“A lot of hotels didn’t welcome us even knowing that we had money. Even the police in Hungary hit some people”), Mardini’s integrity shines through. “I was not afraid – and I am not ashamed of who I am,” she says. “If you want to deal with me like that, then you are the weak person in your mind, not me.”
These days, Mardini is mobilised by her lifelong desire to swim and the heroic realisation that, by retelling her story, she’s keeping thousands of other refugee stories alive. Sometimes she closes her eyes and in the dark expanse the boat reappears. A ghost remains. But strength and hope will always be there, she tells me – no matter what. Swimming is a solace, a path through the pain. With each butterfly stroke, she remembers how she fought the waves, kicked deep into the Aegean abyss – and, against all odds, found the unwavering strength to survive.