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Once Here Fleeing Civil War, Syrian Refugee Returns to Budapest to Swim in FINA World Championships

By Tom Szigeti // 2017.07.27.

When she was last in Budapest, Yusra Mardini was sleeping in train stations. Now, two years later, the 19-year-old former Syrian refugee is back, this time competing as a swimmer in the 2017 FINA World Aquatics Championship.

The last time Mardani was in Budapest, it was one of the worst experiences of her life. In an interview with the Associated Press, the young swimmer described her time in the country by saying that

Hungary was awful. It was really hard…Hungary was the biggest fear for all the refugees.

In fact, according to Hungarian news site Index, when the young swimmer heard the news that this year’s FINA Championships would be held in Budapest, she was shocked, and was afraid that Hungarian authorities would not let her return to Germany, where she currently lives.

Mardani, who also competed in the Olympics last year on the team representing refugees worldwide, came through Hungary after fleeing her native Syria with her family as a result of the brutal civil war that continues to devastate the Middle Eastern nation.

Before being forced to flee, Mardani, a native of Damascus, had been one of Syria’s “brightest swimming prospects” according to the AP, competing for Syria in both the 200-meter and 400-meter freestyles at the 2012 World Championships in Istanbul.

When it became clear to them that the war had no clear end in sight, Mardani’s family decided to flee Syria. Describing the state of her native country, the young swimmer said that “There was war but I could have lived there. But there was no future anymore.”

As the AP notes, for Mardani and thousands of her fellow countrymen, “Life had been reduced to mere survival.”

Fleeing with her sister in early August of 2015, Mardani went to Lebanon, followed by Turkey, before paying smugglers to bring them to Greece.

On the way there, their overcrowded boat almost capsized; as Mardani describes it

The engine broke and we had to swim 3½ hours to arrive to the other side. Me and my sister and two guys…My sister jumped in the beginning and then I jumped after her. We didn’t swim normally, but we had a hand on the boat and hand swimming and then kicked.

Eventually, the two Syrian girls made it to Lesbos, and from there went by land through Macedonia and Serbia, before making it to Hungary.

In Mardani’s own description, Hungary was the most brutal leg of her journey, due to the cruel treatment she and her fellow refugees received at the hands of Hungarian police.

The young swimmer was stuck for one week in Hungary, an experience that she does not remember fondly. Speaking to the AP, Mardani said

I hated the country, I hated the people. I said, ‘I’m gonna come back one day, rich, a normal person, and then I can also enter as a normal person.’ Because I was broken-hearted…It was bad. The situation with the refugees in Hungary — other countries, they handled it, but here it was more complicated.

Returning two years later, Mardani’s attitude towards the Central European nation that once caused her so much pain has softened somewhat. “Now that I’m back I see that the people are all nice, how they are interested in the world championships. The seats are full. I think it’s great,” she said.

This past Sunday, Mardani competed in the women’s 100-meter butterfly in Budapest, where she finished 12 second behind the top qualifier, world-record-holder Sarah Sjostrom. As in Rio de Janeiro last year, Mardani is currently competing as an independent.

Her 25-day flight from Syria eventually ended in Berlin, and today Mardani considers herself a German as much as a Syrian. Describing her new adopted homeland, Mardani said

Now it’s also my country. They helped me so much. They have taken care of me and a lot of people. They have opened the door for us.

Since making it to Germany, Mardani’s story has become famous all over the world; in fact, the 19-year-old Olympian is currently serving as an Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), acting as an example of all that displaced persons are capable of, despite the discrimination they often face.

Via the Washington Post, the Associated Press, and Index

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