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Identity, sports and overthinking: a personal conversation with Yusra Mardini

The story of the Olympic athlete was at the centre of Netflix hit, The Swimmers, which depicted the struggle of millions of other Syrian refugees and asylum seekers.

Often described as a ‘foreign country’— the future is not always as far as it may seem for avid overthinkers.

For a young Yusra Mardini, the shadow of uncertainty coupled with the constant anticipation of what the future holds was a close companion for her throughout her life. But the life-long acquaintance made its departure when the unexpected occurred.

In 2015, Mardini, now an Olympic swimmer, was left with no choice but to flee a war-torn Syria in hopes of finding a better life and chasing after her athletic dreams.

“I’m an overthinker, so I think about my future almost everyday [… but I did have confidence in myself and for that I’m really thankful,” Mardini told Doha News on the sidelines of TedinArabic in Qatar on Sunday.

As the war raged in Syria under the Bashar Al Assad regime, Mardini, who was 17 at the time, along with her sister, Sarah, departed the country.

It was the moment the cruelty of war threw them into the merciless waves of the Aegean Sea.

The sisters found their way onto a dingy from Turkey to Greece after initially travelling from Syria to Lebanon.

When the overloaded boat’s motor stopped, Yusra and Sarah, both of whom grew up in a family of swimmers, along with two others, managed to push the boat of 18 passengers to safety for three hours.

The sisters’ arduous journey inspired the Netflix hit The Swimmers, which depicts the struggle of millions of other Syrian refugees and asylum seekers.

Recounting the moment she first saw the BAFTA-nominated movie, Yusra described it as “emotional”.

“We thought that the movie portrayed Syrians and Arabs in such a beautiful light that is not usually shown in the media. The Arab world is always viewed or shown as this grey or beige area, which is not true at all,” Mardini told Doha News.

‘Our’ story ‘as Syrians’

For Yusra, The Swimmers was more than just a movie about her personal story, but also about the struggle of millions of Syrians seeking shelter away from war.

Some of the viewers have asked the sisters about the characters, including Nizar, who acted as their cousin.

“A lot of people asked about Nizar, a lot of people have asked about other refugees in this story […] to us, it was always more than a movie. It is our story and the story of millions,” Mardini noted.

Yusra and Sarah were able to gradually begin their life again after spending a period of time in a refugee camp near Berlin, before being connected with a swimming club.

Fast forward to 2016, Yusra was selected to compete in the Olympic Games in Rio within the world’s first ever Refugee Olympic Team.

“I hope to share that sports can change your life. I also hope to share that being a refugee does not mean that it’s over,” the young Olympic swimmer said, when commenting on the message she hoped to share with the audience at the TedinArabic event.

Currently, Yusra is a student at the University of Southern California and a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador. Her story was retold in her newly-published memoir “Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian – My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph”.

“Being a refugee is not something bad and it might take you a while to go through what you want to go through, but keep a clear view, or a clear vision of your dreams and hopes,” she said.

A stubborn overthinker

Yusra’s upbringing in a house full of athletes was a source of inspiration for her younger self to keep pursuing her dreams.

The Syrian athlete’s eyes lit up as she described her parents, who she said had their fair share of struggles in life.

“It wasn’t an easy journey, but I learned how to fail and try again from my parents. I saw them struggling in general in life. But then they would come back home, they would have dinner and go to sleep and then they would wake up the next morning and try again,” Mardini said.

As she grew older, Yusra said she acquired stubbornness as a trait along with confidence, both of which are factors that helped her to continue her journey despite its set of challenges.

“I think most of us in the Middle East are very stubborn, which some people see it as a negative, but I see it as something very, very positive because we go after what we want and we try again,” she observed.

When looking back at what advice she would impart on her younger self, “Do not stress,” the swimmer said.

A proud Arab

Yusra joined hundreds of others in sharing the Arab region’s rich heritage at the TEDinArabic event in Doha, which she believes is deeply ingrained in her own identity.

“The Arabic language is very important obviously to all of us, even if I live in the West now, it doesn’t mean that I forget about my origin or my Arabic language. And I definitely want my children to speak Arabic,” Mardini said.

Similarly, the young athlete is keen on carrying Syria with her in every milestone while advocating for her homeland.

“I wish I could go back and end the war. If I have the power to do so, I will. I really hope that the war will end very, very soon and the people displaced all over the world will be able to return.

We are all hurting, but I know that my people are strong and that they’re doing great things whether in Syria or outside of Syria,” Mardini told Doha News.

“I want them to know that I will be a voice for them always,” she said.