“A lot of women in the Arabic world don’t have the courage to share their stories, and don’t have a voice,” the Olympic swimmer tells PEOPLE from her new home in Berlin, Germany. “She is the opposite of that, showing that women can be successful. She is an inspiration — keep going!”
Mardini joins Queen Rania as one of PEOPLE’s 25 Women Changing the World celebrated in this week’s issue. Mardini’s journey has inspired people the world over. She made headlines after she helped save a boatload of fellow refugees in August 2015 as they headed to Germany. She is a strong swimmer, but when she lept overboard after the boat’s engine failed, it was the hardest thing she had ever done.
“Before we went in the water, my sister Sarah said, ‘If anything happens to the boat, just continue to remain and don’t help anyone!’ And then she was the first one to jump!” says Mardini.
When Mardini joined in, “a lot of people on the boat said, ‘You’re really brave.’ I said, ‘Just shut up until we arrive!’ ” she adds.
“The waves were high and it was dark. It was about 6.30 p.m. when we left, so it was a bad time to leave and the weather was changing,” she says. We could see the island ahead. You could see it but felt you were never reaching it.
“My story is hard, but it is not anything [compared to] other peoples’ stories. Others lost their moms or their family and it’s really hard. I am showing all the people that, yes, we are refugees, but we can do everything.”
During the Rio Olympics, where Mardini made her name as a member of the refugee team, she showed that sports don’t discriminate because of nationality. “When you are in the lane and swimming, you don’t look across and wonder where are you from,” she says.
With the debate about Syrian refugees being raised in the U.S. during the presidential election — and around the world — Mardini wants to relay the message that refugees “can achieve and live like any normal person, so give them the chance to let then show you the good in them.”
“I deal with it like everyone,” Mardini says of the discrimination she’s faced. “I’m just trying to prove to them that I’m a normal person and refugee is just a name given to me and to my situation — not my personality and what I’m achieving. I’m proud to represent 6.5 million people around the world.”
She has her sights set on competing in another Games, and in the future, Mardini hopes to return to her native country when it is a “calm place again” to set up a swimming club of her own.
“I’m going to continue until I have my gold. And if I don’t get that, or afterwards, I could go back there and start a swimming school,” she says.