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Christian teen saved 18 refugees in Aegean Sea, became Olympic swimmer

Mon, Aug. 08, 2016 Posted: 07:16 PM


By Mark Ellis

When her overloaded refugee boat broke down between Turkey and Greece last year, a Syrian teen and her sister jumped into frigid Aegean waters and used ropes to tow the boat to safety, saving 18 lives. Incredibly, her survival allowed her to became part of the 2016 Olympic competition in swimming as part of the refugee team.

“In Syria I worked in a swimming pool to watch people not drowning, so if I let anyone drown or die I would not forgive myself,” Yusra Mardini, 18, told People Magazine about her harrowing journey.

Mardini grew up in Damascus, the daughter of a swim coach, who began training her at three-years-old. When she got a little older, she began to swim for the Syrian national team and received support from the Syrian Olympic Committee. Her talent in the pool showed amazing promise.

But when the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, her competitive swimming lane evaporated. She was only 13.

“All the sudden you couldn’t go where you wanted, or your mom calls you when you’re on your way and says, ‘Come back; there’s something happening there,’” she told The New York Times.

School was often canceled for days because of threats to students’ lives.

She and her friends attempted to live normal lives as teenagers. “In the beginning, everyone talked about it, but then after a few years, we were like: ‘O.K., if I’m going to die, I’m going to die! But let me live my life. I want to see my friends!’”

In 2012, the Mardinis’ home was destroyed in the Daraya massacre, which resulted in hundreds killed. Two friends on her swim team were slain and later a bomb shredded the roof of her training center, according to The Times.

Over the next few years, conditions deteriorated. Distraught, she went to her mother one day and pleaded with her to allow her to join the exodus escaping the war: “Enough is enough,” she declared.

“Fine, find someone you can trust to take you, and you can go,” her mother replied.

On Aug. 12, 2015, Mardini and her sister Sarah left with two of her father’s cousins and another friend. They flew from Damascus to Beirut, then on to Istanbul, where they connected with smugglers and a group of 30 other refugees.

The group was bused to Izmir, Turkey, and then taken to the coast to wait for a boat that would take them to the Greek island of Lesbos.

After several days, Mardini, her sister, and 18 others were crammed into a rubber dinghy meant to hold six. Thirty minutes into their journey, the engine died and they began taking on water in rough seas.

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Mark Ellis