Syrian refugee returns to Hungary, as an Olympic athlete

Syrian refugee returns to Hungary, as an Olympic athlete
Trapped in Hungary during a gruelling journey fleeing Syria, Yusra Mardini returned to the country this week under very different circumstances.
3 min read
25 July, 2017
Yusra Mardini was appointed by UNHCR as its newest Goodwill Ambassador this year. [AFP]

Trapped in Hungary for a week during a gruelling journey fleeing her native Syria two years ago, Yusra Mardini returned to the country this week, albeit under very different circumstances.

On Sunday, she competed in the women's 100-meter butterfly heats, clocking 1:07.99, some 12 seconds behind top qualifier and world record holder Sarah Sjostrom.

She will compete in the 200-metre freestyle on Tuesday as part of the world championships taking place this month.

Last year, she competed in Rio de Janeiro for a team of refugees under the Olympic flag. But swimming at international competitions has been quite a change for the 19-year-old.

On her first visit to Budapest two years ago, she slept in fear of Hungarian police on the floors of railway stations, facing daily aggression from authorities as a refugee fleeing Syria.

''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,'' Mardini told The Associated Press in an interview on Sunday.

''It was bad. The situation with the refugees in Hungary - other countries, they handled it, but here it was more complicated.''

'No future in Syria'

The Damascus native was one of Syria's brightest swimming talents, competing for her country in both the 200 and 400 freestyle at the 2012 world championships in Istanbul.

But as fighting intensified and with no end to the war in sight, the family took the decision to leave Syria. By that time, Mardini had given up swimming a long time ago.

"There was war and so on but I was the one, I saw it wasn't working any more,'' she told the AP.

''This was also the reason I left Syria. There was war but I could have lived there. But there was no future anymore.''

Mardini fled with her older sister in August 2015, joining an exodus of refugees who lost hope of the war ever ending.

They first went to Lebanon, then Turkey, before paying smugglers to take them to Greece.

'Dream to swim for Syria'

Mardini has told the story of their hazardous journey on the Aegean Sea many times.

After the engine in their flimsy boat failed, Yusra and her sister took to the dark waters of the Mediterranean and pulled the boat for more than three hours across the sea, bringing it to safety in Greece.

They eventually made it to the Greek island of Lesbos. An overland trek followed through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, where she experienced the worst conditions along her weeks-long journey.

''Hungary was awful. It was really hard,'' Mardini said.

"Hungary was the biggest fear for all the refugees.''

She eventually made it to Berlin where an Egyptian translator at their refugee shelter put them in touch with a swimming club, where she met her coach.

Still in regular contact with her family, she is now based in Germany. But Syria, and the future she may have, are never far from her thoughts.

''It's one of my dreams to compete again for my country. But we will wait to see what will happen,'' she said.