Two years on from sleeping rough in Budapest on a perilous trek from Syria to Germany, teenage refugee Yusra Mardini is back in the Hungarian capital competing in the world swimming championships.
“I promised myself I’d come back to Budapest another way,” the 19-year-old told reporters on Sunday after finishing her 100m butterfly heat.
Now based in Berlin, Mardini gained international attention after surviving near-drowning trying to reach Greece in 2015.
A year later she won her heat in the Rio Olympics as part of the Games’ first ever refugee team.
During a 25-day journey from her war-ravaged homeland, Mardini used her swimming skills to help drag a leaking dinghy carrying 16 people to the Greek shore, after the engine broke down.
“My sister (Sara) jumped into the water first, then I jumped in after her, (with two men) we had one hand each on the boat and tried to swim and kick to shore,” she said.
After more than three hours in the water they arrived on the island of Lesbos, and trekked northwards before getting stuck in Budapest for a week.
Hungary became a hotspot of the migration crisis in mid-2015, after the authorities temporarily blocked onward travel to neighbouring Austria and Germany, which transformed Budapest’s railway stations into vast makeshift refugee camps.
“I slept on the floor, in the train stations, it was really horrible,” she said.
The country’s fiercely anti-immigration Prime Minister Viktor Orban later erected razor-wire fences along the southern borders to keep out migrants altogether.
“Then, I thought that people were really rude, my coach was afraid, when I said I was going to go back (to Budapest) again, but now it’s completely different, so I changed my point of view about the people of Hungary, it’s really cool this week,” she said.
“I totally understand the people and their fears, I would have the same fears, but the problem is that people are not trying to get open for it even.
“I’m not saying that the refugees are 100 per cent amazing and angels, all over the world in countries there are good people and bad people, this is how we are also.”
After Rio, which she called “a dream come true”, she says she is “excited and happy” to swim in another major meet, where she also competes in the 200m freestyle discipline.
Full schedule and results of Arab swimmers in Budapest
In Berlin she focuses on swimming and learning German, and hopes one day to fulfil another dream: swimming for Syria.
“I will wait to see what will happen, of course I will never forget also what Germany did for me, so yes I hope that I am going to represent both countries in a good way,” she said.
A film about Mardini’s life is in the works, while she plans to begin writing a book after the world championships.
* Provided by AFP