Syrian refugee sisters and heroes say work has only begun

A year ago Yusra and Sarah Mardini, who were once among Syria's brightest swimming stars, were swimming for their lives after pulling a capsized boat carrying refugees to Greece to safety. Yusra ended up making the first-ever Refugee Olympic team. AP Photo/Michael Sohn

When the final penalty kick left the right foot of Brazil forward Neymar on Saturday night, swimmer Yusra Mardini clutched her older sister Sarah's hand. In the moment, Yusra was torn. Since she was a young girl growing up in the Syrian capital of Damascus, she has been a fan of Spanish football club FC Barcelona, which Neymar joined in 2013. She calls him her idol and says he, along with her other idols Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, made her believe she, too, could one day become an Olympian.

"But tonight," she said, "I am cheering for Germany. Germany, now, is my home."

One year ago on this day, Mardini, 18, and her sister became heroes to 18 people and symbols of hope to refugees around the world. Since being named to the 2016 Refugee Olympic Team, a first-of-its-kind team comprised of 10 refugees from four nations who competed at the Rio Summer Games under the Olympic flag, Mardini's story has garnered international attention. In Rio, she met swimmers Missy Franklin and Conor Dwyer and was overcome with emotion the first time she dove into the Olympic pool and realized she was swimming in the same water as Phelps.

"My life has changed completely," said Yusra, who competed in the 100-meter freestyle and 100-meter butterfly. "It is incredible."

No. "It is unbelievable," Sarah corrected. "One year ago today, we were in the boat." She looks down at her white iPhone, then picks it up and lights up its display. "Yusra, look what time it is: 8:16 p.m. One year ago at this time, we are still in the water."

The Mardini sisters' story is as improbable and inspiring as any to come out of these Games, yet one that likely would never have been told if not for Yusra being identified as a candidate for the Refugee Team. After the war in Syria destroyed their family's home and the swimming facility where they trained, their parents agreed to allow Yusra and Sarah to flee the war-torn nation with two of their father's cousins and a friend.

They flew to Istanbul, Turkey, took a bus to Izmir with a group of about 30 refugees and smugglers and waited for four days before boarding a dinghy with 18 other refugees, including a 6-year-old boy, bound for the Greek island of Lesvos.

On their first attempt at the crossing, they were stopped by border agents and turned around. On their second trip, the engine on their dinghy broke and the boat began to take on water. It was dark, the waters choppy and only the Mardinis and two men on board the boat knew how to swim.

"In the beginning, Sarah told me, 'Don't help anyone. Just go. Swim with me. If we drown, we drown,'" Yusra said. "But then she was the first one who got out of the boat to push."

For three-and-a-half hours, the sisters swam, fighting the current and the weight of their clothing, pulling and pushing the boat to help it remain on course. The two men also jumped into the water to help and took turns pushing the boat, but they eventually gave up, too exhausted to continue.

"They couldn't handle as much because they are normal people," Yusra said. "We can handle more because we are sports people. At first, no one wanted us to jump in the water because we are girls. When we get in the water, the guys from Somalia were like, 'My god, you are brave.' I was like, 'Shut up now. Please shut up. Don't tell me I'm courageous. When we arrive safely, then say whatever you want.'"

Throughout the swim, the Mardinis said there were times they weren't sure they'd made the right choice to leave Syria, when they didn't believe they would make it to Lesvos alive.

"We have our papers and our family in Berlin. We have everything, so I want to give back to the others. I will be the wall they will rest on." Sarah Mardini

"We missed home," Sarah said. "You think, 'I don't want this trip.' You are in the middle of the sea. No one is hearing you and no one is helping you. So you keep going."

Around 10 o'clock that night, the group arrived on the shores of Lesvos, safe but staring down months of grueling travel on foot and by bus. The Mardinis eventually arrived in a refugee camp in Berlin, where an Egyptian interpreter connected them with a swim coach who agreed to train the girls who had saved a boatload of people. It had been months since that night in the Mediterranean Sea, and the sisters wanted nothing more than to return to the water and to once again train in the sport they loved.

"In the water that night, I thought it would be a shame if we die in the water and we are swimmers," Yusra said.

"No," Sarah corrected. "That it would be a shame to let the people with us die and we are swimmers. We didn't care about ourselves."

For both sisters, swimming has been their passion and competing in the Olympics a childhood dream. Now that Yusra is an Olympian, they say their work has only begun. On Monday, Sarah, who speaks multiple Arabic dialects and English, will return to Greece, where she is volunteering to greet refugees upon their arrival and provide them with food, water and guidance. She has also started her own human rights organization in Berlin, which she named RTR, for Refugee to Refugee.

"I hurt my shoulder that night in the water, so for months I could not train with my sister," Sarah said. "I decided to do something with my mind. Now I am a human rights activist. I want to give something back to others like me and my sister, not just from Syria but from all over the world. We have our papers and our family in Berlin. We have everything, so I want to give back to the others. I will be the wall they will rest on."

Yusra, too, wants to help refugees, and she wants to become an activist who fights for the right for girls to participate in sports. She says already, she has received many emails and Twitter messages from women and young girls from around the world who say they've been inspired by her story, and she makes a point to respond to every message.

"In Syria, the girl who does sport, she is called a whore by people," Yusra said. "This is how closed their minds are in how they think. We fought all the time to swim. But we were lucky. We came from a good family. My mom and dad, they support us. But now we are still fighting and doing our best to rise women up in any way we can."

One year ago, it would have been impossible for Yusra and Sarah to imagine their lives today, to believe they would be watching the final football game of the Rio Olympics from white leather chairs at a party thrown by Visa, Yusra's Olympic sponsor, at an opulent hotel overlooking Copacabana Beach.

One year ago, it was difficult for the Mardini sisters to imagine a future at all.