Yusra Mardini documents her journey from wide-eyed, ambitious young swimmer in Syria to inspirational Olympian, and the literal and figurative voyage she and her sister embark upon in order to create a brighter future.
“I stare at the rings on the flag in Rose’s hands. I close my eyes and see the Damascus skyline at dusk as the call to prayer rings out. Syria. My lost country. What’s a flag anyway? In my heart I’m no less Syrian. I know I’m still representing my people. All the millions of us forced to flee, all those who risked the sea for a life without bombs.”
And that is precisely what Yusra Mardini achieves in her memoir Butterfly. Indeed, that is what Mardini continues to achieve on a daily basis since her remarkable story was first brought to light in the lead-up to the Rio Olympic Games.
Labelling Butterfly a sports book would be too narrow. Granted, swimming and her presence at the Rio Games gave Mardini the platform to share her story and amplify her voice, but Butterfly is a far more important story than one of simple athletic excellence.
If you’ve not come across Mardini’s story before, it’s nothing short of remarkable. A promising young swimmer with Olympic dreams decides, along with her older sister Sara, to flee war-torn Syria and make the treacherous journey to Europe, where in Germany they plan to build their futures.
After a perilous, death-defying voyage, they reach Germany where Yusra seeks out a swimming club to resume her training. Thanks to the kindness and generosity of the people at Wasserfreunde Spandau 04, Yusra and her sister Sara begin to settle in Berlin, and when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) comes calling after constructing a Refugee Olympic Team, Yusra fulfills her dream of making it to the Olympics.
Of course, that super-brief overview doesn’t come close to doing Mardini’s story justice – but Butterfly does.
She conveys the innocence of youth during her childhood in Syria, a time of normality when life comprised swimming – initially against her wishes as her swimming coach father forced his girls to take up his passion – family, and friends.
But as the riots develop in to war, that innocence and ignorance gradually give way to terror and fear. Mardini shares a number of harrowing experiences that include her family being displaced from their home (and never returning) and lucky escapes from bombs and mortar.
For even the most stone-hearted, Yusra and her family’s plight – which lest we forget is one shared by thousands of Syrians – makes for sobering reading.
If Butterfly sheds an important light on the shocking realities of living amidst the Syria conflict, the book continues to excel at capturing the horrifying – and oftentimes humiliating – ordeal of smuggling across Europe, which is where Butterfly devotes the majority of its pages.
And horrifying doesn’t even begin to describe the crossing from Turkey to Greece as the motor fails on their overcrowded, sinking dinghy, and Yusra and Sara risk their lives to drag the boat to shore for more than three hours. Yusra was 17.
After reading this passage, you pray it’s smooth sailing (excuse the pun) from then on. But that would be foolishly over-estimating the hospitality of Hungary – a country they need to pass through in order to reach Germany.
Upon arriving in Germany, thanks to huge slices of fortune and resilience, Butterfly takes a more uplifting tone, particularly after the sisters are welcomed to Wasserfreunde Spandau 04 swimming club. But while we are delighted for their safety and the eventual success of their journey, we are reminded that these are still two displaced young women, in an alien country away from their family.
Step forward Sven Spannenkrebs: in equal parts swimming coach, friend, and guardian angel.
Yusra’s internal conflict over whether she should accept a place on the Refugee Olympic Team offers an insight into the mind of a fiercely determined and proud young woman. Initially she only wants to compete in Rio if she’s achieved the required times – if she’s earned it. But the global stage provided by an Olympic Games, upon which Yusra is able to share her story, ultimately proves an opportunity to large to pass up.
This might seem counterintuitive, but Butterfly is not quite as sombre as this review so far suggests. Don’t get me wrong, your heart bleeds for Yusra, her family and the countless others who have been forced to flee their homes and escape war, you are shocked and saddened by the lengths she and Sara must go to in order to reach Europe, and you are disgusted at some of the treatment they receive during their journey.
But Butterfly is also a story of hope and faith, of family and friendship, of kindness and generosity.
Yusra even relays some of her experiences with a good dose of humour and wit, which seems almost unthinkable given the circumstances. Perhaps it was – and continues to be – a coping mechanism to compartmentalize the experience, or as Yusra says: “If I don’t laugh, I’ll cry”.
Given the socio-political climate of the world today, and with no end in sight for the global migration crisis, Butterfly is an important book to remind us that those caught in the crossfires are no different to anyone else fortunate enough to live on a different patch of land.
And at the centre of this story is a remarkable young woman, who said:
“We’re human beings. I’m a refugee. No one chooses to be a refugee. I didn’t have a choice. I had to leave my home to survive, even if it meant risking death along the way. I have to keep spreading this message, because there will be more of us to come. They, like me, were normal kids with ordinary lives until war split their worlds apart. They, like me, are searching for a future in which death does not fall from the sky.”