Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian - My Story of Rescue, Hope, and Triumph

By: Yusra Mardini

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Yusra Mardini enjoyed a comfortable middle-class life while growing up in Syria and was determined from a young age to become a champion swimmer and go to the Olympics. However, her dreams were cut short when civil war erupted in her home country. Her family lost their home and they had to move around frequently, making it difficult and dangerous for her to continue training. After a few years passed in this near-constant state of turmoil and it became apparent that the war was likely not going to end anytime soon, Yusra's older sister, Sara, decided to emigrate to Germany where a friend had already found refuge. At seventeen, Yusra was still a minor, so she chose to accompany Sara, because they'd heard that once they were granted asylum, minors could petition for family reunification, making it possible to bring her father, mother and little sister over safely.

The two girls set out with a couple of distant male relatives first flying to Turkey and then paying smugglers to take them by boat to Greece. However, the boat, which was too small for the number of people aboard, began to founder in the rough seas when the motor failed. Sara and Yusra didn't hesitate to jump overboard and use their swimming skills to keep the boat headed in the right direction while also lightening the load to keep the raft afloat. For three long hours they fought the intense seas before miraculously reaching dry land. The Mardini sisters bold act of bravery saved their fellow passengers' lives, but their journey was far from over. As they began the long trek through Europe by bus, train, and often on foot, they encountered dangers along the way, including spending a night in a Hungarian jail.

Once they reached their destination in Berlin, life slowly started looking up for Yusra, who found a swimming club where she could begin training again to once more follow her dream. After so much time away from the pool, though, it wasn't any easy task to get back up to speed, but she worked tirelessly to make progress. Then the unexpected happened when the IOC announced that they were looking to form an Olympic team entirely made up of refugees who found themselves with no country for which to compete. After a months long wait, Yusra was finally announced as one of the athletes chosen, in large part because of her inspiring story. It carried her not only to her dream of competing at the Olympics but also propelled her into the spotlight where she's become an unflagging voice for refugees all over the world and in Butterfly, she tells that amazing story.


Butterfly was brought to my attention by Emma Watson's GoodReads group, Our Shared Shelf. I, in turn, shared it with my book club and it was chosen as our latest read. It's an inspiring memoir of a Syrian young woman who undertook a harrowing journey from her war-torn country to Germany in hopes of a better life and the opportunity to continue her swimming training and someday become an Olympian. Ms. Mardini grew up in what appears to have been a normal middle-class family in Damascus where all she'd ever really known was swimming. Her father was a swimming coach, so he put her and her sister in the water at a very young age. In the beginning, he pushed his daughters very hard, almost like a stage parent might do. Eventually, though, she grew to love the sport until it became her life's passion and she won several medals for Syria. But following the Arab Spring, violence erupted throughout Syria, leading to civil war. Ms. Mardini's family lost the home she grew up in when they were no longer able to access it due to the battles being waged nearby, and over the next few years, they had to keep moving around in an attempt to stay out of the path of the bombs. It didn't entirely work, though, as more than one still fell very near them, leading to some extremely close calls. They kept waiting for things to get better, and when they didn't and no end to the war seemed to be in sight, Ms. Mardini's sister, Sara, decided she wanted to head for Germany where a friend had emigrated. Ms. Mardini decided to go with her, because as a seventeen-year-old minor, once there, she would be able to petition for family reunification to get her father, mother, and younger sister there legally.

The two sisters, along with two male extended family members, set out on a harrowing journey, first flying to Turkey and then taking a smuggler's boat across the Aegean Sea to Greece. The boat trip was the part of her story that everyone became fascinated with, because during the crossing, the motor failed, leaving them adrift in a choppy sea. With too many people on the raft, it was going to capsize until the sisters led the way by leaping overboard, not only to lighten the load but also to keep the boat headed in the right direction, while praying and hoping against hope that the currents might eventually take them to shore. I'm absolutely astounded and inspired by what these two brave young women did when many of the men on board were either too terrified to take action or lacked the stamina to stay in the water for long. I won't ruin the story by giving away any more details, but suffice it to say that the Mardini sisters swam for over three hours and their courageous act likely saved every life on that raft.

However, getting to land wasn't the only dangerous part of their journey. They had to evade police to sneak across the border into Hungary, a country that is extremely inhospitable to refugees, and then spent a number of frustrating days there trying to find passage to the Austrian border. They were taken advantage of by unscrupulous smugglers, nearly imprisoned by a gang of thugs who would've drained their financial resources and possibly harmed them in other ways, and later spent the night in a Hungarian jail before finally finding their way to freedom in Germany. Once there, after applying for asylum, Ms. Mardini was able to find a swimming club, a coach, and many kind, generous people who helped her start training again. Then the International Olympic Committee announced a plan to form an Olympic team made up entirely of refugees who no longer had a country for which to compete and who would instead compete under the Olympic flag. In part because of her inspiring story, Ms. Mardini was chosen as one of those athletes, fulfilling a lifelong dream and opening doors to be a spokesperson for refugees worldwide.

Butterfly is a beautiful and inspiring story. I was struck by how, even after the bombs started falling, the author still led a fairly normal life in her home country. Of course, she and her family had many close calls and had to move several times, but she and her sister still behaved like average teenage girls, going out with friends and such. It's a real testament to the resilience of the human spirit that they could make room for the mundane in the midst of extraordinary circumstances. I think it was also very brave for these two young women to set out without their parents to seek a new life in Europe, and without question, what they did to help save their little raft of refugees from being claimed by the sea was incredibly courageous. Yet, Ms. Mardini is very humble about it. Her attitude was similar to what is often seen from military or first responders who are dubbed as heroic, that of someone who was just doing their job. She was a swimmer, so that's what she did, because she could. She didn't really feel like a hero even though others lauded her as such, and she at first resisted talking about what she called "the boat story."

Of course that's what the media wanted to hear about and what garnered her the most attention, but it took her a while to come to terms with the necessity of talking about it. She was also reluctant to accept what she viewed as charity from others, which is the opposite of how many people try to paint refugees and immigrants. She was even reluctant to accept a place on the Refugee Olympic Team, because she wanted to earn her spot rather than being handed it. While she may have needed a leg up once in Germany, I was also impressed by her admission that she was among the "lucky" ones, although I hesitate to call what she had to endure "lucky." However, as she points out, her family actually had the money to send her and her sister on their journey, while many who were too poor to pay smugglers or to even afford food and lodging, wound up in refugee camps somewhere along the way. In any case, I greatly admire all that Ms. Mardini has accomplished in her relatively short life and her willingness to provide a voice for the voiceless. I can't wait to see if she makes the 2020 Olympics, but regardless I think she's destined for great things.


Yusra Mardini