Book Review: ‘Butterfly’ by Yusra Mardini

Butterfly by Yusra Mardini

There have been a number of books written about how Syrian girls have fled their homeland because of the war and described their treacherous journeys across the sea towards freedom, peace and hopefully, a better future. In this book, ‘Butterfly’, you’ll read the story of how sisters Yusra and Sara escape Syria and make their way to Germany. The climax is when the inflatable dinghy (built for 8 passengers, but forced to carry 20) starts to sink out at sea after the engine dies. The girls, together with some of the male passengers, get into the water so as to lighten the load and keep the boat and everyone else afloat. *Though a lot of the credit has to go to Sara, Yusra is the one who eventually gets all the fame. I really would love to read Sara’s account of events. 😉

By the age of 12, Yusra has already made it into the national team, swimming for Syria. While the sisters are equally talented at swimming, Sara’s shoulder injuries mean she cannot fulfill her dreams of becoming an Olympian. But Yusra can, and she has.

This book, ‘Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian, My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph’ is impossibly well-written. I think a lot of the credit has to go to co-writer Josie Le Blond, whom Google tells me is a British freelance journalist in Berlin.

It seems almost incredible how a swimmer in Syria who survived a bomb blast and fled to Germany would eventually landed a Visa commercial, a sponsorship deal with Under Armour, become the youngest ever UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, get named in People magazine’s 25 Women Changing the World (2016) and TIME’s The 30 Most Influential Teens of 2016 too!

Indeed, Yusra’s story grips the imagination such that it even has journalists spinning tales, such as one about how Yusra, with a rope around her waist, pulled a boat with 150 people to safety.

Here are a few thought-provoking parts of the book:

#1: Without Sara, would Yusra even have made it to Germany?

My hunch is that without her more decisive older sis, Yusra would not have made it all the way to Germany. But, of course, this is just my guess.

#2: If war breaks out here in Singapore, would we not be leaving our homeland just like Yusra and Sara did?

Unlike a soldier, I can’t fight. And unlike Yusra and Sara, I’m not even a good swimmer. I hope there are enough planes, buses, boats and motorized sampans to get us all out of Singapore.

#3: Why people would dehumanize or think any lesser of these folks whom we term ‘refugees’. The people at a restaurant in the island of Lesbos refused to sell them water. In Belgrade, hoteliers refused to serve customers with Syrian passports. Smugglers are also out to make a quick buck from helpless Syrian refugees, even keeping large numbers of them prisoner in Hotel Berlin. In Hungary, they are treated like vermin by the police and given food probably unfit for human consumption. They are also treated like animals when they are transported in cages.

#4: Yusra and her family and friends are a different kind of ‘refugee’. While on the run, they are “posting selfies on Instagram and chatting online with friends back home”, checking locations and getting directions.

#5: While some Europeans treated the refugees poorly, the Germans were quite the opposite, giving them a warm welcome. There are donations, housing and even monthly allowances.

#6: At the Rio Olympics, Yusra was part of the Refugee Olympic Team, or ROT for short, which seems quite an unfortunate acronym.


“…Steven asks me what I learned on the journey. That’s easy. I learned perspective. Back in Syria I wasted time worrying about petty things. Now I know what real problems are. My eyes have been opened.”


“It’s just easier to laugh than to cry. If I cry, I’ll cry alone. But if we laugh, we can do it together.”


This book is definitely a very good read. You’ll enjoy it though at the end, you might find yourself wondering, like I did, how much of it is fact and how much of it is embellishment. Unless the author has a phenomenal / photographic memory, it’s unlikely that a person can remember so many details from being on the run (from the war, from the police, from the bad guys, etc). And after the numerous rounds of retelling of the story to so many journalists, it’s not impossible that some things may not be entirely true / accurate anymore.

Book Review: ‘A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea’ by Melissa Fleming

a hope more powerful than the sea

This is one book I’d agree is exceptionally well-written, and reading the author’s note about the list of people she has to thank, you’re left with very little wonder why. While this book is based on a true story, it’s not about the life of the angmoh, Melissa Fleming. Instead, it’s about a young Syrian woman called Doaa Al Zamel. Doaa’s family had to flee from Syria because of the war, and while Egypt appeared to be welcoming at the start, things soon changed. Doaa and her fiancĂ© decided to try and get to Sweden with the help of some smugglers (I’d call them thugs with lousy boats, really) then send for the rest of her family. Unfortunately, some of those thugs decided to sink the vessel and have the refugees (some 500 of them) drown in the sea. And like a scene from the ‘Titanic’, Doaa, who’s on a child’s rubber float, watches as her exhausted fiancĂ© relinquishes his grip and sinks into the water. She, however, survives the 4 days floating out at sea, and also looking after two babies that had been left in her care by their family members who knew that they themselves might not survive but hoped the children would be able to.

Indeed, as Melissa Fleming has shared, it’s so much better to focus on one person’s story instead of trying to write about the millions of Syrians who have been displaced, killed or separated from their families.

Doaa’s story is a powerful one. And I think it really helps readers understand that these refugees are people just like us. And I’m grateful for the TED talks and other videos which share more of her story.

TED Talks:

*The average time a refugee will spend in exile is 17 years.*

And if you’re wondering how refugees can be better supported, watch this:


Come to think of it, Doaa is someone who’s truly blessed. For a person who cannot swim, she managed to survive for 4 days out at sea. And while others were dragged down by those who were drowning and grasping at anything and everything, she managed to avoid that same fate. And miraculously, no one tried to take the flotation device away from her – if they had, she would most certainly have perished.

And if not for the two babies left in her care, I’m guessing she would have followed her fiancĂ© to the same watery grave. It would appear that a divine power wanted her to live.

Read this book. There’s both delight and despair in almost equal parts. You’ll be horrified at the ugliness of humanity (the smugglers trying to fleece and then kill the refugees, the citizens who harassed the refugees, the horrors of the civil war). But there’s also hope – one baby died after being rescued but Masa survived. Doaa lost the love of her life but Sweden embraced her and her family. And while many Syrians have died while trying to escape the war, Doaa’s sharing of her story has captured the attention of people in countries which can help.

If you’re unsure about how you can lend a hand, just grab a copy of this book as most of the proceeds will go towards helping the refugees. 🙂