Yusra Mardini and her sister fled the war in Syria, two teenagers making their way through Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, the Balkans and Central Europe to Germany. Crossing the Mediterranean in an overloaded rubber boat, they jumped in the water when the engine died and the boat started taking on water. Here’s how the New York Times tells her story:
“Of the 20 people on board, only the Mardini sisters and two young men knew how to swim, so the four of them jumped overboard. It was about 7 at night, and the turning tide had made the sea harsh and choppy. …
“Mardini and her sister swam for three and a half hours, helping the boat stay on course — even when the two male swimmers gave up and let the dinghy pull them along. It was cold, Mardini said. Her clothes dragged her down, and salt burned her eyes and skin.
“’I’m thinking, what? I’m a swimmer, and I’m going to die in the water in the end?’ she said.”
But she persevered, “determined to keep a good attitude” for the sake of a six-year-old in the boat, “doing all these funny faces” for the child as she swam. And eventually, swam the boat to shore on the Greek island of Lesbos.
Now Yusra Mardini is one of ten refugees on a team representing the world’s 65 million refugees at the 2016 Olympic Games. The first-ever refugee team, they come from Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Yolanda Makibe was separated from her parents by fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo when she was six years old. She has not seen them since. She started learning judo in a displaced children’s center in Kinshasa, and sought refuge in Rio in 2013 when she competed there in the World Judo championship. Like fellow refugee team member, Popole Misenga, she tells of an abusive coach who confiscated her passport and locked her in a cage if she did not win a match.
Yonas Kinde fled Ethiopia, and now drives a taxi in Luxembourg while training for marathons. He says of his home: “It’s impossible for me to live there… It’s very dangerous for my life.”
South Sudanese runner Angelina Nadai Lohalith now 21 years old, has not seen her parents since she was six years old. That’s when war destroyed her village. She wants to win at the Olympics, make money, and somehow find her parents and build a house for them.
Read or watch the stories of all ten refugee Olympians — and cheer them on. The Olympic games, marred by corruption, scandals, and the usual displacement of impoverished people in the host country, still offer some shining stories of hope.