(By Alessandra Baldini)
BERLIN, APRIL 17 – “What a pleasure meeting such heroes!”. While traveling in Sicily as UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, Syrian athlete Yusra Mardini went on board of Nave Dattilo of the Italian Coastguard: “Comandante Federico Panconi told me their boat had rescued over 38,000 people from the seas mostly between Italy and Libya in the last 4 years. They were inspiring and brave – what incredible jobs they do”. Yusra took over UNHCR’s Instagram account as she was in Sicily meeting refugees and asylum seekers. She posted about the situation on the ground, telling the stories of individuals she met and sharing her own reflections as someone who is also a refugee.
Yusra was a talented swimmer in war-torn Damascus and professionally backed by the Syrian Olympic Committee. As unrest in the besieged country escalated, she would often find herself training in pools where roofs had been blown open by bombings. Mardini and her sister Sarah eventually left Syria, travelling through Lebanon and Turkey before trying to reach Greece. When their boat lost power, Yusra, Sarah and two strong swimmers jumped into the sea and swam for three hours in open water to stop their dinghy from capsizing, eventually reaching Lesbos. The two girls eventually reached Germany and Yusra was picket to swim with the first ever refugee team at the 216 Summer Olympic Games in Rio.
In Sicily with UNHCR, Yusra met “the incredible Selam who has been in Sicily for five months, while her husband is already a refugee in Germany. Selam is from Eritrea. She told Yusra that “the most important thing is to be reunited with my husband because we haven’t seen each other for two years”. She is with her friend Faven.
“I am here in Sicily to learn about the ongoing situation of desperate journeys. For refugees journeys to Europe are dangerous. I have learnt that shockingly, in the first three months of 2018, 1 in 14 people crossing from Libya to Italy died on their way. Women, especially those travelling on their own, and kids remain particularly vulnerable. I was one of these”, the young athlete said.
During the trip Yusra talked to those working in UNHCR and those who are trying to help refugees.
“There are those in Sicily with a huge heart that have opened their homes to refugees”, she said after meeting Sister Karina who told her that their Nunnery is now a place of refuge for 35 women who were very vulnerable, and Barbara Molinario, who works for UNHCR, to understand more about the work that the organisation does in Italy. UNHCR supports the Italian government and other organisations to ensure that people are given protection and assistance when they arrive, “however, I also learned about the need for greater solidarity from all countries in the world to help those countries where refugees arrive first. Let’s stand #WithRefugees”, wrote Yusra on Instagram.
The young athlete focused in particular on one aspect of the migration tragedy after meeting Hassan who travelled across 6 countries from Somalia. “He travelled alone. These people are just like me – we like playing sports, and we want to enjoy life and have fun and have a future”.
In 2017, over 17,000 unaccompanied children reached Europe. Most of these children arrived by sea to Italy, where 13% of all arrivals were children traveling on their own. “When I swim, I swim for every refugee. I swim to show people what we are capable of, and that we are all individuals with passions, skills and abilities. I swim to stand #WithRefugees”, proclaimed young Yusra who didn’t take home any medals, but whose story was perhaps the most inspiring of the 2016 Rio Olympics and who was named to Time magazine’s 30 Most influential Teens of 2016 and People magazine’s 25 Women Changing the World lists besides becoming brand ambassador for the athletic wear brand Under Armour. (@OnuItalia)