Refugees depicted in new film ‘The Swimmers’
EXTRA,  FEATURES,  Features,  January 2023

Swimming to sanctuary: the story of sisters Yusra and Sara Mardini

Elaine K Howley tells the extraordinary story of sisters Yusra and Sara Mardini, who escaped war-torn Syria to compete at the 2016 Rio Olympics

The world has a refugee problem. Environmental devastation, socioeconomic disadvantages and civil unrest are just a few of the major reasons why record numbers of humans have fl ed from their country of origin to another region in recent years.

In December 2022, the BBC reported that more than 40,000 people crossed the English Channel via small boats in 2022, “the highest number since these fi gures began to be collected in 2018.”

Nearly all of those people sought asylum, with some 90% of them applying for government protection in the UK.

Some of those people encountered English Channel swimmers and pilots as they floated away from France. And some never arrived on England’s coastline.

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For all of them, the crossing is exceedingly hazardous and speaks to indescribably poor conditions in their homelands to warrant such a risk. For most, just a life vest and an inflatable boat separate them from death by drowning.

Journey into the unknown

Venturing into the busiest shipping lane in the world usually with little to no knowledge of local conditions and very limited safety support is not something most people would choose to do if they had a better alternative.

More than 40,000 people crossed the English Channel in small boats in 2022

Britain is not alone in receiving an influx of refugees and migrants recently. Over the past decade, droves of people have flocked to Europe for sanctuary, and a great many of them arrived via perilous sea crossings.

A report from the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, noted that in 2015, over a million refugees and migrants fled to Europe by sea, with another 4,000 or so perishing during the journey.

That same year, two women from Syria succeeded in making the high-stakes crossing from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesvos, a popular route for migrants coming from Middle Eastern and Central Asian locations.

As for most migrants who travel this route, the Syrians – Sara Mardini, then 19, and her younger sister Yusra Mardini, then 17 – crowded into a barely seaworthy inflatable boat that was soon overloaded with too many people to stay afloat.

Rescue mission

But unlike most refugees who board these flimsy vessels, the Mardini sisters would prove to have a special skill that helped them survive – and helped them rescue the other 18 people who’d been stuffed into a boat designed for just seven people. They could swim. And not just a little bit. In fact, the
Mardini sisters were champion swimmers in Syria with dreams of Olympic gold.

Sara and Yusra Mardini grew up in Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, and were their father’s passion project.

Their father, Ezzat, had been a Syrian national team member, but stopped swimming competitively when he was called up for military duty.

It was through his daughters that he hoped to experience the Olympic glory that had eluded him as a younger man.

In her 2018 memoir Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian – My Story of Rescue, Hope, and Triumph, Yusra recounts how seriously her father took his role as coach.

Reluctant introduction

Initially, Yusra wasn’t all that keen on swimming, but after watching Michael Phelps clinch the 100-metre fly event at the 2004 Athens Games, she was inspired to get to the Olympics herself some day.

She threw herself into training, and by age 12 had qualified for the Syrian national team. But in 2006, Syria entered a four-year drought, the worst the country has ever experienced.

Yusra and Sara as portrayed in The Swimmers

Economic hardship followed, which led in turn to civil unrest. It started as nonviolent, pro-reform protests in 2011 – a follow-on to protests engulfing other Middle Eastern and North African nations during the so-called Arab Spring.

Across the region, citizens rose up to protest their governments, and in Syria that led to a bloody civil war that’s still ongoing today.

The Mardini girls did their best to live a normal teenage life despite the war, going to school and the pool for training and spending time with friends. But as the violence crept ever closer to home, the family was forced to move several times.

Finally, in 2015, it became too dangerous for them to remain in Syria at all, let alone continue training for the Olympics. For their own safety, the Mardini sisters hatched a plan to flee Syria and make a new life in Germany.

From pools to open water

Though the Mardini sisters were excellent swimmers, most of their training and experience had taken place within the controlled confines of a pool. Yusra writes of an open water competition the sisters took part in once in the city of Latakia, on the northwest coast of Syria.

That 5km open water swim included 50 competitors and was a different way of experiencing swimming, Yusra recounts.

“Once we’re out in open water, I feel a little uneasy. Swimming in the sea is different from swimming in a pool. The water is so mysterious and deep. There are no sides, no chance to rest. I’m worried about getting lost and I have to swim with my head up so I can see the buoys and boats set out to mark the route. I’m relieved when we arrive on the shore over an hour later.”

But just a few years later, Yusra’s survival would depend on her ability to cope with open water when she found herself on the coast of Turkey wearing a life jacket over jeans and a sweatshirt, about to clamber into a tattered inflatable dinghy with 19 other people trying to get to Greece.

A desperate journey

The smugglers charged $1,500 per person to set foot in the boat, and only three of the cohort could swim. “The others can maybe tread water for a few minutes, but they wouldn’t stand a chance without life jackets,” Yusra writes. Nevertheless, desperation led the group to shove off from shore and hope for the best.

Before long the boat began taking on water, and then about halfway to their goal, the engine sputtered and died. Passengers attempted to get the engine restarted, but to no use. It was down to Yusra, Sara and another passenger who could swim to get out of the boat to lighten the load.

So the swimmers did what they do best: they jumped in and swam, trying to tow the decrepit dingy and its precious cargo behind them. When that proved fruitless, they supported the boat to help keep it from capsizing in the waves and catching what forward swell there was to push them closer to their
destination while the others tried frantically to restart the engine.

Danger in the water

For more than three hours, they toiled in the cold water, life jackets chafing and salt burning their eyes and throats. Again, Yusra observes that “the sea is not a swimming pool. This water is unlimited, wild and unknowable. The waves march on, relentless, an advancing army.”

As the sun dipped below the horizon, they forged ahead.

“Swimming in these conditions, it’s like I have no muscle memory, like I’ve never swum before in my life,” Yusra writes. She and Sara clung to the boat and did their best to keep it on course.

Finally, one of the passengers got the motor running again, just as the Mardini sisters were about to succumb to hypothermia.

After a short rest on the boat, Sara got back in the water to allow the boat to make faster progress toward the darkened shore. As they approached land, Sara used her strong swimmer’s body to guide the vessel onto the rocky beach.

The long road to Rio

Surviving that sea swim was only the beginning of a long, fraught journey to Hanover, Germany, where a family friend sponsored the Mardini sisters in their asylum petitions.

Along the way, they encountered many long queues and the best and the worst humanity has to offer vulnerable people.

From their landing point near a village called Sikaminea, they waked three hours to another village to catch a bus that brought them to the capital city where they could board a ferry to Athens.

From there, they boarded another bus that took them clear across Greece to the Macedonian border, where they had to cross on foot.

More peril on land

The sisters endured yet another lengthy queue to register for temporary asylum to transit across Macedonia, after which they boarded another bus that took them to into Serbia. Another deposited them near the Hungarian border, a scary place they had to carefully slip across via a cornfield tall
with late-summer produce.

They were detained by Hungarian police and scammed by smugglers. They narrowly avoided being taken hostage by unscrupulous traffickers at several turns, but eventually they arrived in Berlin after a 25-day-long ordeal.

Olympic dreams

Soon after arriving in Berlin, Yusra set out to find a place to train. She connected with Sven Spannekrebs, an elite level coach with Wasserfreunde Spandau 04, and together they revived Yusra’s Olympic dreams. She competed in the 2016 Olympics Games in Rio as part of the newly formed, 10-member Refugee Olympic Team.

Though Yusra was initially reluctant to identify as a refugee – she’d spent her entire life being a proud Syrian who wanted to represent her home country on the global stage – eventually, she found her place as a member of the refugee squad.

From that position she has had perhaps a much greater impact than she might have had if she’d been able to compete for Syria.

Brilliant butterfly

At Rio, Yusra won her heat, the first in the preliminary round of the women’s 100-metre butterfly event. She finished 41st among 45 entrants overall in a time of 1:09.21.

Yusra competed in the 100-metre butterfly at the Rio Olympics

While her time put her more than 13 seconds off the podium, her placement was hardly the point; the fact that she was able to compete at all was a triumph of the human spirit and display of considerable talent and poise.

Yusra has earned enduring fame for her resilience. She was named the youngest Goodwill Ambassador to the UNHCR, helping bring attention to the struggles displaced persons face around the globe. She met the Pope, President Barak Obama and many other influential people in the course of her duties as cause célèbre.

A helping hand

Sara, on the other hand, has garnered less media attention, but has arguably done more hands-on work to assist refugees both in the moment when helping their group survive and later on in returning to Lesvos where she offered humanitarian aid to other refugees.

For her troubles, Sara was imprisoned for more than three months on trumped up charges of espionage and smuggling in Greece.

Her case is still pending and she faces up to an additional 25 years behind bars for providing assistance to asylum seekers who arrived on the island of Lesvos.

Meanwhile, Yusra competed at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, which had been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Swimming in July 2021, she set a Syrian national record in the 50-metre butterfly.

A story for the big screen

In November 2022, the sister’s story became a Netflix film called The Swimmers directed by Sally El Hosaini, an acclaimed Welsh-Egyptian director.

The story portrayed in the film deviates slightly from Mardini’s book to streamline the journey, but the overall impact is the same: two brave young swimmers found the will to cross a cold waterway and in the process forged a (hopefully) better life for their family.

Watch The Swimmers on Netflix to learn more about the Mardini sisters.

This article is from the January 2023 issue of Outdoor Swimmer. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

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