Between Damascus and Rio a Warmer Sea


We live in the age of the refugee, the age of the exile.”

 -Ariel Dorfman

yusra mardini refugee athletes

For the first time in Olympic history, Refugees will be represented in world competition. Every one of these 10 courageous athletes has a remarkable story of resilience and courage.  This is a glimpse of one of those gallant souls.

It needs to be noted that these 10 athletes are from countries torn apart by war and their only option was to take flight to another country. But these athletes have not become citizens of those countries that have adopted them. They continue to remain refugees who hope that one day they might be allowed return to their homelands.

yusra mardini (2)Vinay Devnath reported in on swimmer Yusra Mardini, one of the 10 Olympic athletes from the Refugee contingent. (Yusra was a star swimmer in Damascus, Syria before civil war tore the country apart.)

Her talent was recognized early on and she was even endorsed by the Syrian Olympic Committee for being an exciting prospect to bring the medals in. When war tore the country apart Yusra kept swimming, sometimes in swimming pools with their roofs blown apart by bombings according to Devnath.

And sometimes you would be swimming in pools where the roofs were [blown open] in three or four places.” – Yusra

There comes a time when you just cannot keep on going, and that time had come when Damascus became too unstable and Yusra’s family decided to flee the country.

She and sister Sarah trekked from Lebanon through Turkey to get to Greece. The refugees finally crowded upon a small boat to try and cross high seas to get into Greece illegally.

yusra mardini refugees boat2 (2)And then this happened.

Yusra was on a rubber boat with 20 other people that had just drifted off the coast of Turkey. The boat’s motor failed and stopped completely. The refugees now were stranded in the open sea.

Yusra jumped into the cold Aegean Sea with two other swimmers. They pushed the boat full of 20 people for over 3 hours until they reached the Greek island Lesbos.

Devnath wrote that she could not use one of her hands because it was tied to the boat. But she swam with all her strength, using her other hand and her legs.



Yusra Mardini IOC



It was three and half hours in cold water. Your body is almost like … done. I don’t know if I can describe that.” – Yusra



Once in Berlin Yusra began to train for the Rio Olympic Games. Her trainer says she worked hard and with great dedication.

Maybe I will build my life here in Germany, and when I am an old lady I will go back to Syria and teach people about my experience.” – Yusra

On Saturday (Aug 6, 2016), Yusra Mardini, a Syrian refugee now based in Germany, stormed to win her women’s 100-metre butterfly heat but failed to qualify for the semi-finals.

The water is warmer still.

Kristen Bell Tweeted  “A reminder of who refugees are: Syrian refugee competing in Rio pushed a sinking boat to safety for 3 hrs & saved 20”


Yusra_Mardini_02 (2)When an entire segment of the world is burned and reduced to a lawless battleground for thugs and mercenaries, a land where government does not exist, where the slate of history is being wiped out and hope has drowned in gallons of innocent blood, the only respite comes in the form of the open seas and what lies beyond the horizon. So ships are boarded and pain is tolerated just a little while longer.”

― Aysha Taryam






  1. Very moving and inspirational piece; thanks so much for posting it. Hope this “tradition” of representing refugee athletes under the Olympic flag can continue.

  2. What a POWERFUL story of courage and survival. Those of us so privileged to be born in America, yes even those of us who live in poverty as defined by our limited worldview, should be proud to welcome refugees. Their ability to continue and not give up in the midst of such atrocity makes us all stronger if we will alow it . May it be so.

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