By: Gisella Lomax, UNHCR | 18 January 2017

Yusra Mardini, the Syrian swimmer who inspired the world at last summer’s Rio Olympic Games, has made an impassioned appeal to global leaders in Davos to ensure vulnerable refugees like her are given more than basic support.

“With food for our stomachs, refugees can survive. But only if they are given food for the soul will they be able to thrive,” Yusra, 18, told a high-profile side event at this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF).

“But there are different kinds of nourishment. There is the love of your family and your friends – and maybe they are still in the war zone, or maybe you got separated from them as you fled the violence.”

Yusra, a strong supporter of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency was speaking at the ‘Global Goals Dinner for a Healthy Not Hungry, Inclusive World’ event, co-hosted by the World Food Programme, UNICEF and Project Everyone.

“As a refugee, you know what it is to be hungry and thirsty… If you are lucky enough to reach a place of safety, you are given food, water and shelter. And of course without those things you cannot survive,” she added.

During her journey from Greece to Germany in 2015, Yusra (left) traveled through Hungary with other asylum-seekers.  © UNHCR/Lam Duc Hien

During her journey from Greece to Germany in 2015, Yusra (left) traveled through Hungary with other asylum-seekers. © UNHCR/Lam Duc Hien

Attendees included business and world leaders, renowned chefs and celebrity advocates including singer and activist Shakira, Manal Al-Alem – the ‘Queen of the Arabian Kitchen’, British restaurateur Jamie Oliver and Richard Curtis.

Drawing on her own personal experience, Yusra spoke emotionally of the challenges of fleeing war and persecution — a reality now faced by more than 65 million people.

“My country used to burst with food,” she said, reminding the audience that Syria, now ruined by war, was once agriculturally rich.

Yusra fled war in Syria and saved lives during a perilous boat-crossing from Turkey to Greece. She captured the world’s attention when she swam in the 100-metre freestyle event in Rio de Janeiro as part of the first Team Refugees.

Introducing her to the stage, the Olympian great Michael Johnson said “Yusra is one of the bravest women… all of the Olympians who made up the Refugee Olympic Team overcame hardship and injustice, and earned the opportunity to compete against the best in the world.”

While she is now training to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, the teenager is focusing on inspiring other displaced people around the world and changing the way refugees are perceived.

“There is nourishment in being active,” Yusra said. “In my case, in swimming and training for hours every day, in striving for an Olympic medal, in standing up for the cause of refugees everywhere as a UNHCR supporter – and a proud member of Team Refugees.”

For information about Yusra Mardini at the World Economic Forum, visit the media page: