Identity is formed by a complex layer of labels. We might identify as a certain gender or sexual persuasion, as a parent, child or sibling. Our identity might be tied up in our nationality, our career, or our hobby.
When discussion happens around people seeking asylum, very soon those at the centre of the issue become faceless. Terms such as ‘refugees’ and ‘asylum seekers’- while accurate and legal in their basis to describe the flow of people seeking refuge- can be clinical and also dehumanising. Even more so are the terms adopted by those opposed to asylum seekers, such as ‘queue jumpers’, ‘economic migrants’ and plenty of others which are not worth mentioning.
While a label can be helpful in classifying people according to needs and providing them with the appropriate help, they also remove any other identity previously held by that person. Suddenly discussions around rights afforded to refugees, or detention of asylum seekers become more palatable, as the language allows us to forget we are talking about individual human beings.
Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini was a refugee from Syria. She famously swam for over three hours to help save the lives of 20 others with her, as they made their perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.
As reported in The Independent, Mardini and her family were desperate to flee war-torn Damascus. Mardini and her sister climbed on board a dinghy built to carry six people but ended up carrying twenty after reaching Turkey. Thirty minutes into the journey, the motor failed. Being one of only four people on board who could swim, Mardini, her sister and two others jumped into the water, and ended up swimming for three hours to push and pull the boat until it reached the shore. Their actions saved the lives of everyone on board.
Mardini and her sister later settled in Berlin, and she competed in last year’s Olympics in the 100 metres butterfly and freestyle events.
Now Mardini is using her fame to make people aware of the plight of other refugees. Speaking at the World Economic Forum early this week, Mardini shared her experience of suddenly being labelled as a ‘refugee’. “Who is this refugee? Well, once I was just like you,” she said. “Then war came and everything changed. War gave me a new name, a new role and a new identity: refugee.”
Mardini challenges anyone who thinks that refugees choose their fate. “Being a refugee is not a choice. Our choice is to die at home or risk death trying to escape.”
Mardini hopes that in personifying refugees, societies may be more accepting of those fleeing violence. “The refugees will not go away, there will be more of us. If humanity is to meet this challenge you must know us for who we really are.”