Sunday, August 7, 2016

One Reason We Love The Olympics: Yusra Mardini

 All too often, I keep hearing from people who disagree with me on whether or not Syrian Refugees should be allowed to enter our country. They argue with me about how they could be terrorists. So much of their speech is filled with fear and distrust. They view these refugees as "others" and whenever we do that with anyone, we separate ourselves from them and no longer see them as made in the image of God or that they have connection to us.

Like many families, our family has been watching the Olympics closely. We are a family of three teams: U.S.A., Ukraine, and Refugees. Like many around the world, we are rooting for a Syrian refugee swimmer by the name of Yusra Mardini. As have a great many people, our family has fallen in love with her and are deeply and profoundly moved by her story.

Watching her compete now, it's hard to believe that only two years ago, this eighteen-year-old girl was swimming to not only save her life but the lives of others, including her sister, crossing the sea to get to Greece as they fled their war-torn country. They were in a rubber boat meant for only six or seven people but now held eighteen other refugees. When the engine quit and the boat began to take on water, Yusra, her sister and one other passenger dove into the water and pushed the boat for three long, grueling hours in the Aegean Sea. They risked their lives to save the lives of others. She was fortunate, as 2,500 refugees have drowned in this year alone.

Even before she took to a pool in Rio, Yusra is a true hero. Hopefully her story will shed more light on the crisis of Syrian refugees and, more importantly, change many people's attitudes towards them. This is a young woman who has shown bravery, courage and compassion. In an interview she said, "In the water there is no difference if you are a refugee, or Syrian, or German." Why then should it be different on land?

Though she competes under the Olympic flag, all of the world must come together to support these Refugee athletes. We must reach out to become a part of the solution to the migrant and refugee crisis.

After all that she's been through, she bravely said, "I remember everything, of course. I never forget. But it's the thing that's pushing me actually to do more and more." She hopes to one day go back to her home country and teach people about her experience. "These things are not about sports only," she said, "but about a longing for freedom."

During Parade of Nations at the Opening Ceremonies, our family was in tears as the refugee team entered the stadium. I pray for them, for their families and for their homelands. I pray that the world sees athletes like Yusra and their perceptions of refugees change. It needs to change as global public perceptions, particularly in the United States, is at a low, many viewing them with disdain and hatred.

Novelist Herman Melville wrote, "We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects." Watching those ten refugees reemphasized that connection. It put names and faces and lives to the stories we see on the news. They moved from being "refugees" to flesh and blood people before us and, in so doing, make us look not only at them during this competition, but to really see all of those they represent: not a country, but countries that they cannot return to. Watching them, I was filled with compassion for them and hoped that others were as well. Watching them, I prayed that people who are against refugees coming into their countries, would feel a change taking place within themselves. I prayed they would no longer view refugees as a "them" but as an "us."

Their stories of adversity and triumph need to be heard. They need to be seen and applauded and welcomed, not because they are athletes but because they are individuals with stories and dreams and goals for themselves. They should be embraced because they have had to give up their homes and have gotten to Rio through perilous journeys just as Yusra did. She hopes to change people's perceptions of refugees. "I want everyone to think refugees are normal people who had their homelands lost to them not because they wanted to run away and be refugees, but because they have dreams in their lives and they had to go."

"I want to inspire everyone that everyone can do what they believe in their hearts," Mardini told the media and she is doing just that even if she doesn't win a single medal. "We are encouraging everyone to pursue their dreams."

The Amish have a saying that I love, "Instead of putting others in their place, put yourself in their place." I do this when I look at this young woman and think, "If she were my daughter, would I not do all within my power to help her?" Should we not view all refugees as our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters? Refugees are human. This is a simple fact that gets overlooked in the news coverage and the hostile debates. May these games and these athletes give us all empathy for their countrymen displaced by war and violence. If that can happen, then something greater than the awarding of gold, silver and bronze medals has happened.  I pray that when we see Yusra's beautiful face, we come away changed for the better: changed into more compassionate and caring human beings who see that refugees only want what we want: a home.

"When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 19:33-34, ESV).

"For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality nor take a bribe. He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 10:17-19, NAS).

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