From Refugee to the Rio Olympics


The Syrian refugee crisis has made headlines for months.

The crisis, and how the U.S. and European nations should react to refugees, is controversial.

The statistics reported in the news can be mind-numbing:

  • 12 million people, almost half of the Syrian population, have been displaced
  • 70,000 refugees could come to the U.S. this year alone

Sometimes it’s important to take a step back and realize that behind each of these numbers are real people, with real stories. And not all of these stories are relentlessly sad–some are also inspiring. Take Yusra Mardini, for example, an 18 year old swimmer who will compete in the 2016 Olympics for a brand new team, the Refugee Olympic Athletes.

Yusra Mardini has faced challenges most Olympic hopefuls could never imagine. A promising athlete and star of her local swimming club, Mardini focused on her training until the war disrupted it. When conflict came too close, trainings were called off — or held in pools under the threat of bombings.

When her house was destroyed last summer, Mardini and her family decided it was too dangerous to remain in Syria. Mardini and her sister Sarah left for the Greek isle of Lesbos along with 20 other refugees — only three of whom could swim — in an inflatable boat meant for six or seven passengers. In the middle of the Aegean Sea, the overcrowded boat began taking on water. In the toughest swim of her life, Mardini jumped in the water along with her sister to push the boat to shore.

Mardini now trains in Berlin. Before this year, athletes without nations to represent were barred from the Olympics. For the first time, people like Mardini can participate. She’ll swim for the Refugee Olympic Athletes because, she says, “I want refugees to be proud of me. I just want to encourage them.”

According to International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, the creation of the ROA sends a message of hope to refugees around the world and shows that sport can serve society. Mardini seems to agree. She says that, “in the water, there is no difference if you are a refugee or a Syrian or German.” Instead of being crushed by her experience as a refugee, Mardini credits it as “the reason I am here, and why I am stronger and want to reach my goals.”

How can you help refugees like Mardini and her family?

Organizations like CARE International and Doctors Without Borders (Medecins san Frontieres) help refugees on the ground in Syria and neighboring countries. Closer to home, you can volunteer or donate to local organizations that assist with refugee resettlement in your area. And of course, you can always honor top level athletes who strive for their goals in spite of huge obstacles by setting your own goal at an everydayhero event and fundraising on behalf of an organization that supports refugees.

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