GWANGJU, South Korea (AP) — Refugee swimmer Yusra Mardini knows what she’s talking about when it comes to family separation for asylum seekers, having fled her native Syria four years ago.
Mardini empathizes with families currently separated along the U.S. southern border.
“This is the most terrible thing anyone can have — to live without a mom or to live without a family,” she said Sunday at the world swimming championships where she’s competing as an independent athlete.
Mardini originally made headlines three years ago at the Rio de Janeiro Games where she swam for the inaugural Refugee Olympic Team.
In 2015, she and her sister had escaped conflict in their homeland when the boat they were aboard with other refugees began sinking. They jumped out and swam part of the journey from Turkey to Greece.
They then embarked on an overland trip from Greece to Germany, evading local authorities in countries with immigration policies that barred them from legal entry. Along the way the sisters slept in train stations or wherever they could find shelter. Mardini was 17 at the time. She is now a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
“I know people who lost their moms on the way or in the water — that got drowned — and I feel this is terrible,” she said.
Mardini said that from the time she left Syria she lived without her mother for six months. Eventually, they were reunited in Germany, where they now live in Berlin.
“I felt so alone,” she said. “So lonely.”
The experience has prompted her to stand up for fellow asylum seekers in similar situations.
“Someone has to do something about it,” Mardini said. “The least we can do is talk about it, not just ignore it like everything else happening in the world.”
Mardini finished 47th out of 52 swimmers in the 100-meter butterfly heats on Sunday. Her other event in Gwangju is the 100 freestyle on Thursday.
She is attempting to again qualify for the Olympics as a member of the Refugee Olympic Team.
“My goal now is just to swim a new personal best,” she said. “And my next goal will be Tokyo 2020.”
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