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Once, there was a girl who loved to swim. Her name was Yusra Mardini. She was born in Damascus, Syria, a country long gripped by war. When her home was destroyed by a bomb she knew she had to leave the country, so she and her family fled by way of a boat filled with too many refugees. When the motor broke down, she and her sisters became heroes, swimming and pulling the boat to safety. In Germany, Yusra found glory as one of the first refugee teams ever to compete in the Olympics.
Diana Nyad: Welcome to Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. I’m Diana Nyad.
Before we start, this podcast is based on the New York Times Best Seller inspiring millions of girls to dream bigger, aim higher and fight harder. Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls is an illustrated children’s book about the life and adventures of a hundred heroic women from all over the world. Go to rebelgirls.co and use the promo code “rebel podcast” to get 15% off your first purchase. That’s rebelgirls.co, promo code “rebel podcast”.
Now for today’s story.
Once upon a time in Damascus, Syria, there was a swimmer called Yusra. Yusra hadn’t always been a swimmer. When she was little, she was too scared to get in the pool. While the other kids swam, she’d stand at the edge of the deep end staring into the water. She could barely see the bottom. And when she thought about plunging in head first, her heart beat a little faster. But the pool didn’t just scare her; it excited her too, so little by little she braved the water.
She dipped her toes, tried staying afloat and plunged her head under water for just a second, and eventually she was swimming. Not just swimming, but swimming competitively. Her dad trained her and her older sister, and she was winning competitions left and right. She could barely remember what it felt like to be scared of the water. Now the pool was her favorite place because swimming made Yusra feel like she’d been transported to a different world. When she dove in, all the noise around her disappeared. And as she swam pushing herself to go faster, always faster, all she could hear was her heartbeat and the water. Swimming made her problems disappear. But when she was 13, Yusra had problems that swimming couldn’t solve; her country was at war.
I’m Diana Nyad, and this is Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, a fairytale podcast about the extraordinary women who inspire us. This week, Yusra Mardini.
Many Syrians wanted their government to be a democracy but the country’s president, Assad, didn’t, so there were huge protests. People gathered in the streets and they spoke their minds and the government shot them. Brave people protested more, and the violence got worse. By the time Yusra was 13, the conflict between the protestors and the government had turned into a full blown civil war. Rebel groups formed around the country and battled the government for control of cities. Yusra and her family, her mom, dad, and two sisters, heard more bad news every day. People were dying. Not just rebel fighters or government soldiers, but regular people too.
For the first year, they were safe in the suburbs of Damascus, the capital of Syria, but eventually the fighting reached the outskirts of the city. Yusra and her neighbors could hear machine guns and explosives in the distance. After just a few more months, the war had reached the middle of Damascus. One day Yusra and father we’re walking to the gym so that she could train in the pool there. When they reached the building, they could see that the roof had huge gaping holes in it. Rubble and dust had fallen in her pool. Yusra’s training center had been bombed. She had no place to swim anymore. And soon there were few safe neighborhoods in the city. Bullets and shrapnel shells flew through the streets at all hours of the day, and massive military tanks rolled through residential neighborhoods. Yusra and her family lived in constant fear.
At 14, Yusra saw just one way out, they had to leave. It was dangerous, but so was staying. And what kind of life did they have here as they watched their city be destroyed? Yusra begged her parents to make the trip to Europe, but they told her no. It was too dangerous for all five of them to go, especially with her little sister Shaed, who was just a toddler. It was too risky. They’d have to wait.
Then the bombings reached their neighborhood and their house was destroyed. No one was home when it happened, so everyone was safe, but they’d lost everything. Yusra’s mother came to her with a plan. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she spoke. Two of Yusra’s cousins were planning to make the long, dangerous trip to Europe, and they had offered to take Yusra, and her older sister, Sara, with them. It was unclear when her parents and the rest of the family would join them, but for now, the girls would get out. The journey was dangerous, but staying in Damascus had become even more terrifying.
The plan was to go to Berlin, Germany where many other Syrian immigrants had fled. Maybe they could find a welcoming community there, and Yusra hoped maybe she could swim again. She’d heard they had good swimmers in Germany.
The day she left, Yusra hugged her parents and younger sister goodbye, choking back tears. She left Damascus with almost nothing; a cell phone, some clothes and cash to pay the smugglers that would help her and Sara sneak across borders, because in many of the neighboring countries, Syrian refugees were not welcome.
They set off with their cousins and a group of other refugees. First, they flew to Beirut in Lebanon and then to Istanbul, Turkey. Every step of the way, they were terrified of being caught by the police who would surely send them back to Syria. From Istanbul, they made their way south to the part of the Turkish coast closest to a Greek Island called Lesbos. There they met up with the smugglers who had agreed to help them in exchange for money. They were about to embark on the most dangerous leg of their journey by boat.
Yusra and Sara hid with the group in the woods by the beach. They were waiting for the right moment when the smugglers thought it was safe to make a move. They needed calm waters and to avoid the Turkish Coast Guard. Finally, it was time. The smugglers loaded them onto the tiny boat at the dock and pushed them out to sea, the little motor whirring. But almost as soon as they’d set off, there were spotted by Turkish Coast Guards who forced them back to shore. Yusra got a nervous feeling in her stomach, like butterflies, but not the good kind. This was going to be harder than they thought.
They decided to try again as soon as the sun had gone down. Now with the cover of darkness, they might just have a shot. The drone of the engine forced them all into silence and slowly the coast behind them started to shrink. The trees they’d hidden in for days, got shorter and shorter as they sped away out into the Mediterranean Sea. But then 20 minutes after they’d left the coast, the engine shifted a pitch higher, like it was working too hard. And then it sputtered, going slower and slower until it stopped. The motor was broken. And while they tried to fix it, water was slowly creeping into the boat.
See, the tiny dinghy was only meant to hold six people, but the smugglers had crammed in 20, and most of them didn’t know how to swim. Frantic, they started splashing water out of the boat and doing everything they could to make it lighter. They threw their bags and any belongings they brought with them from Syria into the water, trying desperately to keep the boat from sinking, but none of it helped. The water was at Yusra’s ankles now, and she knew she had to do something. She thought to herself, “It would be a shame for us to drown here when I’m a strong swimmer.” She looked at Sara and they both knew what they had to do. They jumped into the cold water with two other people. Out of the 20 on the boat, only four could swim.
Yusra went in front of the boat so she could pull it with a rope. She used her other hand at her feet to swim. Five minutes passed, and then 20. Yusra’s eyes burned from the salty water. The boat was heavy. With 16 people on board and only four of them swimming and pulling, the struggle was immense. They’d been swimming for a full hour, inching toward the Greek Island of Lesbos so slowly that it was hard to tell if they were getting closer or not. Yusra’s legs grew tired, but she knew she couldn’t stop kicking. Her flip-flops slipped off her feet and floated away, any concern for her clothes, all she had now was gone. Her sole focus was to get everyone to shore alive.
She wrapped her hand tighter around the rope and kept swimming. They pushed and pulled, and pulled and pushed. Yusra was so tired she didn’t know if she could keep going. Would they die here? Would they ever see their parents and little sister again? Yusra wanted to cry but she couldn’t because when she looked up at the boat, she saw that one of the boys in the group was watching her swim. He was just six years old. Not much older than Yusra’s little sister. So Yusra forced a smile, and she tried to make him laugh. She didn’t want him to think they were going to die here, even if they might.
Now her hand was raw from holding the rope and her feet were numb from the cold water. Her eyes still burned and her mouth was chapped by the salt, but she kept swimming. And then, Yusra was sure she wasn’t imagining it this time, the shore was getting closer. They were going to make it. Yusra, Sara, and the other two swimmers, dragged the boat onto the shore and collapsed onto the ground. They’d swum for three and a half hours. They’d saved themselves and 16 other refugees. They’d made it. Now they just had to get to Berlin.
They traveled north from country to country, crossing borders however they could. After trekking through Serbia, they hid for hours in a cornfield waiting for the right moment to sneak across to Hungary. Finally, in the middle of the night, they made a run for it. Not long after they crossed the border, the Hungarian police caught them and took them to a refugee camp. On the way, Yusra and Sara looked at each other and they started laughing. When the police demanded to know what was so funny, the girls just laughed harder. Yusra thought to herself, “We were going to die in the sea, and now you think we should be afraid of you?”
Of course, once they got to the refugee camp, they ran away the first chance that they got. These girls were not to be stopped. They hadn’t yet reached their final destination.
After a month long trip across nine countries, Yusra was in Berlin. Things were far from perfect. She slept on the ground in a refugee camp for months after she got there, but she was safe, and she’d heard about a swimming club. [foreign language 00:14:57] was one of the best places for young swimmers to train in Berlin. Yusra decided to try out for the team. It had been two years since she’d been in training so she was out of shape, but the coach could tell she was good. She had great technique, but more important than that, he could see that she loved to swim.
Yusra threw herself into training. She’d wake up at 6:00 in the morning so that she could swim before school and then head straight back to the pool once her classes let out. Her times were improving fast and people were starting to notice. Her coach hoped she would compete in the Olympics in 2020, but she would become an Olympian much sooner than that.
In 2016, the Olympics created the first Refugee Olympic Team, and they asked Yusra to be a member. She was one of 10 athletes from around the world that would compete at the Olympics as refugees. After fleeing Syria and enduring the treacherous escape to Germany, she was still considered a refugee, a girl without a home country, but now she was a proud Olympian.
Yusra raced in the hundred meter butterfly. She was the only member of the refugee team in her preliminary heat, and she won. She didn’t medal at the 2016 Olympics, but she has her sights set on gold in 2020. She still lives and trains in Berlin, where her parents and little sister live now too. She says she doesn’t care what country she swims for; Syria or Germany. None of that matters in the water. What matters is making all the refugees watching proud. She wants everyone watching to know that even without a country, you are someone, someone worthy of being considered the best in the world.