“I left everything behind: my family, my friends, my childhood”

Yusra Mardini, UNHCR’s youngest goodwill ambassador, has written a memoir recounting her journey from Syrian refugee to Olympic swimmer. With the book due to hit shelves this week, she talked to Kat Lister of The Pool about why she felt the need to reclaim her own story and her struggle to identify with the word “refugee”.

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.

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