Queen Rania of Jordan is a leader of women in the Arab world and beyond and is a champion of refugees, especially those fleeing neighboring Syria. Jordan has taken in more than 1.4 million people during the civil war.
As one of PEOPLE’s 25 Women Changing the World celebrated in this week’s issue, Queen Rania writes about refugee swimmer Yusra Mardini, who helped pull a boatload of fellow refugees to safety, and then went on to compete in the Rio Olympics.
It wasn’t a typical qualifying swim for the Olympics. But 18-year old Yusra Mardini isn’t a typical teenager. And she couldn’t have known that last year, when she fled her home in Damascus and journeyed through Syria, then Lebanon, on her way to Germany, she would, literally, have to swim for her life.
In the middle of the Aegean Sea, the dinghy onto which she and 19 other refugees were cramped broke down. Overcrowded, listing, and at real risk of sinking, Yusra, and her sister, dived into the water and swam for three and a half hours — all the time, pushing the flimsy raft and those on board towards the Greek shore. Elation at surviving the ordeal was short-lived. Another exhausting journey through Europe awaited them until, months later, Yusra and her sister finally registered as refugees in Germany.
There aren’t enough adjectives to do Yusra justice. Courageous: to set out on the journey. Selfless: to dive into the sea and save others. Positive: to never lose hope. Her indomitable spirit is an example for us all.
And, yet, her story was just beginning.
If adapting to her new, temporary home was her first priority, swimming was her second. And when a German swimming trainer, Sven Spannerkrebs, spotted her, he saw potential — for the 2020 Olympic Games. But, in a plot twist worthy of a fairytale, the International Olympic Committee invited a team of refugees to participate in the 2016 Rio games – and Yusra’s dreams of competing were, happily, realized much sooner.
Swimming in the Rio Olympics was life-changing for Yusra. But the lesson she learned is not about competing. It’s about the kindness of strangers. It’s about Sven looking beyond the label ‘refugee’ to see a young girl with a big dream. It’s about one person thinking, “How can I make a difference?”
With more than 60 million people displaced from their home due to conflict, crisis or poverty, today, I wish more people could look beyond their borders to support others in need. I’m proud that thousands of Jordanians have opened their homes, neighborhoods, schools and hospitals to displaced and desperate Syrians. But if we are truly to stand together as a global community in this time of crisis, and heal, and unite, we must all do our part and lift each other up – as Yusra did; as Sven did.
And when we all lift each other up, that’s when we win gold for humanity.