BERLIN –Syrian teenager Yusra Mardini has faced obstacles as a refugee from a war-torn country that most people cannot even begin to imagine and now she wants to go the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
The 18-year-old swimmer trekked across Turkey, made the treacherous sea crossing by boat to the Greek island of Lesbos and gradually weaved her way through most of central Europe with her sister before arriving in Berlin in 2015.
She is now part of a group of 43 hand-picked refugees who have been identified by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as potential Olympians and are being supported on their road to qualification.
“I want all refugees to be proud of me, I want to encourage them that even if we are not in our homeland and had a tough way that we can still do great things,” Mardini said, looking very much at ease in front of dozens of cameras and reporters.
“It is hard to leave your home, very hard,” Mardini said during a break from training at the swim club Wasserfreunde Spandau 04.
“Our house was destroyed, we did not have anything any more and we ran away.”
She swam part of the crossing over to Greece, helping other refugees who were in the water and could not swim.
“We were thinking with my sister when were in the boat, it would be a shame if we did not help them so we got into the water and helped them. It was a really tough experience.”
A competitive swimmer back in Syria, Mardini, who is about seven seconds off the qualification time she needs for the 200 metres freestyle in Rio, looked for a club as soon as she arrived in Berlin.
After checking out her level, Wasserfreunde Spandau took her in and Mardini has never looked back, now busy shaving seconds off her personal best in a pool originally built for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
“I want to go to the Olympics. It is a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” she said with a big grin and confidence to match.
The refugees who will eventually qualify and form a team of between five and 10 athletes in Rio will march as a separate team called Refugee Olympic Athletes (ROA).
They will stay along with the other teams in the athletes’ village and have the same privileges as all other 11,000 athletes.
Nomination criteria to make the ROA include sporting level, official United Nations-verified refugee status and personal situation and background.
“The 43 belong to different sports, mainly athletics and swimming,” said the IOC’s Pere Miro, Deputy Director General for Relations with the Olympic Movement.
All names of the athletes and their sports will be released in June and Miro said the list included Ethiopians, Syrians and South Sudanese refugees among others.
He said more than half were identified at the sprawling 180,000 refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, where there were organised leagues in football and basketball.
More than a million refugees, mainly from Syria, have crossed via Turkey and Greece into Europe in the past 12 months. An estimated 60 million worldwide are fleeing their homelands, Miro said.
“What we wanted to do with this project is to show the world that there is a problem,” Miro said. “The 43 are only the cherry on top. We want to show that the Olympic movement is based on values.”
“What we really believe is that this should continue after the Games in Rio. This is not something we have done only for Rio Games. This should be continued.”