Swimming for Freedom-The True Story of Yusra and Sara Mardini from Netflix’s 'The Swimmers'
By: Norah Soufraji/ Arab America Contributing Writer
A Remarkable True Story
The newly released Netflix film The Swimmers tells the remarkable true story of two heroic Syrian sisters named Yusra and Sara Mardini. Directed by Sally El-Hosaini, The Swimmers is a striking and heartfelt depiction of the Syrian refugee experience framed within the central relationship of the Mardini sisters. Although the subject matter deals with heavy subjects such as the perilous fate of refugees and the horrors of the Syrian Civil War, it also highlights, in exquisite technicolor, the beauty and nostalgia of life in Syria which makes the Mardini sisters’ journey all the more compelling.
An unforgettable scene in the film shows Yusra and Sara’s ordinary life as teen girls full of youthful joy as they dance on a rooftop with friends. The camera moves to a panoramic view of Damascus as bombs begin to fall in the distance, illuminating the night sky. In another scene, the sisters attend a swimming competition which is also cut short by a bomb falling through the roof above the pool.
As the civil war begins to reach a point of no return, with daily bombings and danger at every turn, the sisters make the impossibly difficult decision to leave their family in Damascus and undertake an impossible journey to reach freedom and safety.
The Perilous Journey
After leaving Syria, the Mardini sisters decide to undertake the perilous crossing from Turkey to Greece with the hope of making their way to Germany and obtaining asylum. One late night, Yusra and Sara join other asylum seekers, including families and young children, on a dingy boat which eventually becomes stranded, after engine failure, on the choppy waves of the Aegean Sea. After several tries to restart the engine, it appears that the only course of action is to attempt the impossible. Yusra and Sara dive into the water and begin to swim. After upwards of three hours, the sisters are able to pull the boat across the dark sea waves and finally reach Lesbos, Greece.
The scenes on the Aegean are heartbreaking and difficult to watch. Over the last decade, there have been seemingly endless news stories of tragedies at sea where asylum seekers have lost their lives while attempting to reach safety in Europe. In this one case, we cannot help but feel a sense of relief at the heroism of Yusra and Sara but also be reminded that if it were not for their amazing swimming abilities and heroism, the story may have ended quite differently.
According to director Sally El-Hosaini, it was important for the crossing scenes to be as realistic as possible. All scenes on the sea were actually filmed on the Aegean and many of the asylum seekers in the film were actual refugees who had made the very same crossing themselves. In an interview with Netflix, El-Hosaini recalled seeing actual refugee boats on the horizon being followed by Greek coast guard between film takes. She also expressed the following: “Making films is a privilege but also a responsibility. In a world that desperately needs empathy I hope that The Swimmers increases this just a little bit.”
“I am proud to be a Refugee”
The best part about The Swimmers is that it provides a human face to what some deem a “refugee crisis”. We hear numbers and statistics from news reports and articles but we too often forget the humanity of the people who risk their lives to leave their homelands. We also forget the journey does not end with the journey itself. Many refugees will face struggles adapting to a new country and language while also having to process the pain and psychological trauma of fleeing a war zone and missing the lives they left behind.
As depicted in the film, the Mardini sisters face challenges as they navigate a new life in Europe. Scenes in Germany are often depicted in gray and colorless tones, which are contrasted with the light blue tones of the swimming pools. Once in Germany, Yusra decides to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming an Olympic swimmer. With the help of a trainer named Sven, she successfully trains and is able to qualify for the very first refugee Olympic team. The Mardini sisters’ lives begin to be filled with hope again. Color returns to the screen as scenes of the Olympics in 2016 Rio De Janeiro show Yousra in her element, making her lifelong dream a reality.
In an interview with Netflix, Yusra recalled feeling nervous about competing in the Olympics in Rio and said that she did not want people to feel sorry for her. She expressed a desire to truly feel that she had earned her place in the competition. As the competition commenced during the opening ceremony, Yusra recalls a sense of pride and accomplishment competing as part of the refugee Olympic team. She came to realize that her journey was a source of pride and inspiration for millions of refugees around the world and said “I am proud to be a refugee.” Yusra continues to be an inspirational athlete and was appointed a UNHCR Goodwill ambassador in 2017.
Sara Mardini, who we see supporting and pushing her sister to chase her Olympic dreams, also has an incredible story to tell. In interviews, Sara has said that in another life she would have liked to have been a lawyer back in her native Syria. After arriving in Germany, Sara began studying at university but later took a break in order to work assisting refugees at the Emergency Response Centre International in Lesbos, Greece. According to Newsweek, Sara was arrested and detained for 107 days until she was finally released on bail and allowed to return to Berlin.
According to the Greek government, Sara is currently facing criminal charges for smuggling, espionage, and fraud. If found guilty, Sara may face a combined sentence of 25 years. In human rights circles, Sara is considered a brave human rights defender. Amnesty International has deemed the charges as “trumped up” and “farcical”. Those involved in The Swimmers film will raise awareness of Sara’s case and shed light on the shocking human rights situation in Greece and the rest of the Mediterranean.
The Swimmers is well worth the watch and provides a profound and moving insight into the remarkable lives of Yusra and Sara Mardini. The sisters are also brilliantly portrayed by two real life sisters, Lebanese duo Nathalie and Manal Issa. We can only hope that this film and others like it will spread awareness about the struggles of millions of refugees around the world and inspire people to advocate for greater compassion and empathy in the world. Check out the official trailer for the film below.
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