The Swimmers: Yusra Mardini’s Journey From A Refugee Boat To The Olympics
Most people do not have their lives made into a film. Most people have not made an inconceivable trip from war-torn Syria to Berlin by a tiny dingy on a rough sea. And then had to spend three hours pulling it to safety when the motor gave out halfway through their journey. But then most people are not Yusra Mardini. The day before our interview, the 24-year-old walked the red carpet in London where she unveiled The Swimmers, a moving drama that details Mardini and her sister Sara’s harrowing journey from Damascus to Europe in 2015 and then to the 2016 Olympics in Rio, where Mardini swam for the Refugee Olympic Team.
As a child, Mardini didn’t take to the water which, considering she came from a family of swimmers, was ironic. Her father (and swimming coach), Ezzat, pushed her to join the sport from a young age. “I complained about the [cold] water or cried because I didn’t want to swim. But slowly,” she recalls with a smile, “I started loving it and getting more competitive.” By age nine, she began taking the sport seriously, studied Michael Phelps’ technique, and soon became an accomplished athlete in her own right, competing across the globe.
Then in 2011, war struck her home of Syria, costing the lives of over 300,000 civilians and forcing over 13.5 million Syrians to leave their homes. The most important thing for her family, Mardini says, was “to try and feel normal again” as they moved from apartment to apartment after their house in Damascus was destroyed.
The terror of the ongoing war led Mardini at age 17, along with her sister Sara and their two cousins, to make the perilous journey to Germany, leaving their parents behind. Explaining the thinking behind this, Mardini says they would rather “risk everything one more time, than [keep] risking everything every day by not knowing what was going to happen next”.
Her treacherous crossing was made via the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece, with 18 other people in a dinghy made to fit no more than seven (before continuing overland to Germany). It is one of the film’s most horrifying moments. “It was very realistic to me,” Mardini says about the scene. “And it was very emotional.” The motor gave out halfway through, and the Mardini sisters jumped into the sea to pull the boat to safety, fighting against the wind and rough tide for three hours. The film, Mardini notes, takes liberty on just one aspect of the journey: in real life, the sisters didn’t have a rope tied around their waist to prevent them from drifting away.
Miraculously, they made their way to Berlin where they became refugees. There were saving graces. While at the refugee centre, they swam at a pool in the city whenever they could and it was, says Mardini, “the one thing that made me feel like I was home again”. Through a local coach, Sven Spannekrebs, Mardini joined the Olympics’ refugee swimming team for both the Rio and Tokyo games.
Today, Mardini continues to swim while also using her platform to shed light on the refugee crisis; in 2017, she became the youngest-ever Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR. Her sister’s own journey has been less straightforward. In 2018, Sara and other volunteers were arrested on the Greek island of Lesbos for assisting refugees making the same treacherous journey across the sea. The charges are described by Amnesty International as ‘unfair and baseless’. Nevertheless, at the time of going to press, Sara is still facing trial. “For a refugee that went through that journey, to go back and volunteer is very brave,” Mardini says. She hopes the film will not only raise awareness of her sister’s predicament but, ultimately, will change the world’s perception of those displaced, and encourage people to treat them with greater compassion – because “being a refugee is not something bad [but] it’s not something you choose to become”.
Iana Murray is a Scottish-Filipina freelance culture journalist based in London whose work has been published in GQ, Vulture, W Magazine and more