Review: Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian - My Story of Rescue, Hope, and Triumph

by Yusra Mardini (St. Martin's Press, 2018, First US Edition)

At the top of my summer reading list, this debut memoir recounts a teen’s perilous journey from wartime Syria to seek sanctuary in Germany. It’s also a young competitive swimmer’s honest exploration of training. Born in 1998, Yusra and her older sister Sara learn to "swim before they can walk". Their father, Ezzat, is a swimming coach near Damascus, where the family is middle class, Muslim, and well established—until violent regime change disrupts life as it has always been.

Yusra describes inner struggles and insecurities as a highly skilled competitive swimmer. A formative moment is watching television with her father in 2004, when Michael Phelps wins the 100 M. butterfly at the Athens Olympics. At age 7, Yusra represents Syria at an elite international swim camp. She describes the rigors of constant training, pressure to best her personal-best times, physical injuries, growing pains, thrills of victory, and friendships with teammates. Every day is a struggle to endure pain and self-doubts, while also keeping up with school.

Yusra comes of age in a country that is in the process of devolving due to sectarian and political rivalries. (Butterfly focuses on 2004 - 2016.) Escalating violence (including a missile that lands in the pool while the sisters train) displaces the Mardini family several times within Syria. By the time Yusra turns 17, many friends and family members have migrated to Lebanon, Turkey, or Europe.

Eventually, the sisters decide to risk it all and seek asylum in Germany, where they hope to continue their education and swim competitively. They travel with some cousins by foot, car, bus, train, and their wits. On an overloaded boat from Turkey to Greece, Yusra, Sara, and other able passengers take turns swimming alongside the inflatable to keep it from sinking. Unlike some people moving into exile, the Mardini sisters have means. They can afford food an occasional hostel, bribes for smugglers. While they lack legal travel documents, the sisters own a smart phone with gps tracking. Yusra’s family supplies funds and moral support. During the journey, they witness extreme hardships of mass migration: beaches littered with debris, stories of those detained, imprisoned, or deceased. The travelers also experience kind acts by strangers. They manage to navigate through countries that are immensely confusing—in terms of language, culture, laws, and landscape. Along the way, Yusra and Sara befriend international journalists documenting the refugee migration story; these contacts prove essential later on.

When the sisters eventually reach Germany, their goals shift. They struggle with asylum paperwork and begin to adapt to new lives in Berlin, while their parents and younger sister remain behind. Yusra renews her dream of training for the Olympics. This memoir resonates with Yusra’s honest exploration of internal emotional conflicts. She suffers survivors’ guilt, and grieves the loss of her childhood, home, friends. Swimming provides both challenge and sanctuary.

Some surprising twists and Yusra’s own determination fuel her competitive swimming edge. The International Olympic Committee organizes a Refugee Olympic Team to compete in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, and Yusra is one of the athletes invited.

At first, Yusra analyzes the burden of being a “Syrian Role Model”, and decries the label “refugee”. She eventually joins the Refugee Team. “With the team, I’m representing 50 million displaced people across the world. It’s a huge responsibility but I know my job. I have a message to spread: that being a refugee is not a choice. That we too can achieve great things.”

Butterfly will interest readers who want to learn about a young refugee’s epic journey from Syria to Germany. It's also filled with thoughtful meditations about family, faith, and dedication to athletic training at the highest levels. “I don’t believe the secret of being happy is living a life free of problems. It’s about being able to smile despite the hardships.” Suspenseful and informative, this memoir offers inspiration for ages 14 and up.

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Karen Lewis