The athlete stories coming out of the Rio Olympics have captured the world’s attention. And if you are anything like me, Team Refugee--with only 10 members and no flag or anthem--has captured an outsized amount of that attention.
An Olympic team built entirely of refugees. What a message of hope and perseverance by the International Olympic committee. An unprecedented response to match the unparalleled forced migration of millions of people over the last decade as a result of conflict.
But the story of one athlete is particularly striking: Yusra Mardini. You can see her here winning her first heat in the 100m butterfly. She did not qualify in the next heat, but that’s beside the point. What she had to overcome to compete in Rio, and her message of hope for refugee children scattered in camps across the world, that is the take-away for us all.
A year ago, Mardini and her sister fled the Daraya suburb of Damascus in Syria. The New York Times goes on to recount the girl's harrowing water crossing into Greece:
“After four days, Mardini and her sister were packed with 18 other people, including a 6-year-old boy, on a dinghy meant to accommodate six. On their first attempt, they were caught by border agents and sent back. On their second, the engine died after about 20 minutes, and the dinghy took on water."
Of the 20 people on board, only the Mardini sisters and two young men knew how to swim, so the four of them jumped overboard. It was about 7 at night, and the turning tide had made the sea harsh and choppy.
Mardini and her sister swam for three-and-a-half hours, helping the boat stay on course — even when the two male swimmers gave up and let the dinghy pull them along. It was cold, Mardini said. Her clothes dragged her down, and salt burned her eyes and skin.‘I’m thinking, what? I’m a swimmer, and I’m going to die in the water in the end?’ she said.”
Mardini and her sister did not die that night. They made it to shore, and eventually found a home in Germany, where Yusra resumed training as a swimmer. And you already know the rest of the story.
What is striking about Mardini’s story is the determination she has showcased on the world stage. From fleeing her home, to guiding a sinking dinghy across the Aegean Sea, to competing against some of the world’s best swimmers. Sadly, she cannot stop the fighting from which she fled in Syria, and she may never be able to return to her home, but Yusra can stand as a powerful example of what can be achieved despite the raging conflict. She can give us hope.
And that is what it is all about. Hope. Like Mardini, we cannot stop the fighting in Syria through our work with TentED. But by supporting projects by local partners and providing school supplies, outfitting classrooms, distributing uniforms, and keeping libraries stocked with books, we can provide hope to refugee children living in camps across the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
Our most recent project to outfit 10 classrooms in a school in Soran, Iraq, with desks, chairs, whiteboards, and teaching materials, stands as our latest example of small, achievable work that will resonate loudly in the lives of over 300 Yazidi and Shabak children who have fled to the area with their families. The school, currently being built by our partners, World Orphans, will open on September 21, 2016. The cost to fully furnish each classroom is $1,250. We are working hard to raise $12,500 by September 1 so that on day one all 10 classrooms will be ready to inspire every girl and boy to continue studying and succeeding. We are closing in on our goal, having raised $9,300 with just $3,200 to go. Please join us in this effort.
Yusra Mardini’s example, and the examples set by the rest of Team Refugee, have been noticed by those of us at TentED. And their examples must certainly be an inspiration to the tens of thousands of children living in refugee camps across the Middle East and in Europe. In this way, Mardini’s win in Rio provides hope amid circumstances that may, at times, seem hopeless. Mardini could have given up, overwhelmed by the odds, but instead she swam on.