Olympian swimmer refugee to world leaders: ‘It is not a choice to flee from your home’

Refugees are not Skittles.

Yusra Mardini, a swimmer for the Refugee Olympic Team, speaks during the Leaders Summit on Refugees in September 2016. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ CAROLYN KASTER
Yusra Mardini, a swimmer for the Refugee Olympic Team, speaks during the Leaders Summit on Refugees in September 2016. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ CAROLYN KASTER

One year ago, 18-year-old Yusra Mardini was in the Mediterranean Sea dragging an inadequate dinghy of refugees from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos. Her compelling story was brought to international attention when she competed at the Rio Olympics as part of the Refugee Olympics team this past summer. And on Tuesday, she forcefully brought her plight to world leaders as she introduced President Barack Obama at the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees and Migrants in New York City. That high-level meeting was intended for leaders to work on international solutions for the global migration crisis that has affected 65.3 million displaced people, including more than 21 million refugees like Mardini.

“Refugees are normal people that can achieve great things if given the opportunity.”

“This experience has given me a voice and an opportunity to be here,” Mardini said during her introductory remarks. “For me, I want to help change people’s perception of what a refugee is, for everyone to understand it is not a choice to flee from your home and that refugees are normal people that can achieve great things if given the opportunity.”

Mardini, who fled from the Syrian civil war and has now been resettled with her family in Germany, embodies the fighter spirit among many refugees hoping to find any country willing to let them take residence. She is one of the very lucky refugees who will receive continued support from the International Olympics Committee (IOC).

A media spokesperson told ThinkProgress late last month in an email that Refugee Olympic Team athletes will have Olympic Solidarity scholarships paid through the end of the year to support their “sports careers, education, post sport careers, etc. We will now study each individual situation and decide on how best to channel the IOC support in the future.”

In his address to the General Assembly, Obama commended Mardini.

“Yusra, we could not be prouder of you — not just for the great introduction, but more importantly, for your courage and your resilience and the great example that you’re setting for children everywhere, including your eight-year-old sister, who I know must look up to you,” Obama said.

Obama’s speech also highlighted how children see refugees, reading a touching letter sent to him by a 6-year-old New York boy who offered to adopt 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh, who was injured after being pulled from his bombed-out home in Syria. Watch now:

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“Those are the words of a six-year-old boy — a young child who has not learned to be cynical, or suspicious, or fearful of other people because of where they come from, how they look, or how they pray,” Obama wrote. “We should all be more like Alex. Imagine what the world would look like if we were. Imagine the suffering we could ease and the lives we could save.”

But many countries, like Hungary and Australia, have not taken the refugee issue seriously, instead cracking down on the number of annual refugee admissions into their countries on terrorism concerns. In the United States, critics have compared refugees to a bowl of poisoned candy. And the declaration agreed to at the United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants reveals that world leaders are still failing to provide immediate solutions and take concrete actions for refugees who, unlike Mardini, don’t have the backing of the Olympics team. Most of the plans agreed to won’t take effect until 2018, a date too late for refugees currently fleeing from constant aerial bombings or political violence.

Advocacy groups believe that some host countries, including the United States, could go further. For his part, Obama announced a commitment for the United States to take in 110,000 refugees globally in the 2017 fiscal year, a plan that would-be presidential candidates and other politicians have panned. On Wednesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) sent a notice to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) agency of the state’s intention to withdraw from the federal refugee resettlement program based on concerns that refugees would “pose a threat to our nation.” The decision has left non-profit organizations like Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), the second largest refugee resettlement agency in the United States, to scramble to fulfill the needs of refugees.

Withdrawing from the resettlement program does not make Texans safer or accomplish any public policy goals.

“Despite Governor Abbott’s concerns, we know that refugees entering the U.S. pass through the most rigorous and comprehensive security screenings of any persons admitted to the U.S.,” Linda Hartke, LIRS President and CEO said in an email statement. “Withdrawing from the resettlement program does not make Texans safer or accomplish any public policy goals. It sends the message that Texas is an unwelcoming place for refugees, and completely disregards the inherent value that refugees bring to the state’s economy, local communities, and the nation.”