15 C
Tuesday, September 26, 2023
HomeEntertainmentSyrian refugee Sara Mardini on her long swim to freedom, Netflix's 'The...

Syrian refugee Sara Mardini on her long swim to freedom, Netflix’s ‘The Swimmers’ and her trial


“Many imagine the Mediterranean as water, sea and nature,” says Sara Mardini. “But to me, and to many others, it’s a graveyard. It is literally a death sentence.”

Mardini narrows her dark eyes and smiles. The 27-year-old knows what she’s talking about. Seven years ago, she and her sister Yusra, both fleeing war-torn Syria, found themselves on a boat on the stretch of sea between the Middle East and Europe, which the Italians mare nostril. There were 18 people on board, on a boat built for seven. When the engine failed and the ship began to take on water, Sara dove into the water. Yusra followed. They were both strong swimmers who dreamed of participating in the Olympics. Together they swam for hours, pushing and pulling the boat until they finally came ashore on a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos. For Sara, Yusra and the others on the boat that night, the death sentence of the Mediterranean was commuted.

That night was just the beginning of the sisters’ odyssey. They traveled on foot, by train and by bus through Greece, the Balkans, Hungary and Austria, finally arriving in Berlin. Yusra realized her dream and competed in the 2016 and 2020 Olympics as a member of the refugee athletics team. Sara decided to return to Lesvos and started volunteering in the Moria refugee camp, an “open-air prison” in Human Rights Watch’s words. There she welcomed migrants and handed out blankets while also working as a translator, listening and offering comfort where she could.

“I told them, ‘I know how you feel’ because I had the same experience and survived,” she recalls. “I would say that over and over again. It reassured them to know that I was a refugee, just like them.”

But Sara’s dedication would cost her. In 2018, at the age of 23, she was arrested by Greek authorities on charges of complicity in illegal immigration. She spent 106 days in a maximum security prison in Athens before being released on bail and allowed to return to Berlin. She’s still awaiting trial.

The story of Sara and Yusra, fictionalized, was told by Sally El Hoseini in the Netflix drama The Swimmers, starring Nathalie and Manal Issa and premiered last year in Toronto. A documentary focused on Sara, Long distance swimmer – Sara Mardini, from director Charly Wai Feldman bowed at the Hot Docs party in Toronto in April. Earlier this year, Time magazine put Sara and Yusra on their list of the 100 most influential people of 2023with a commentary written by Cate Blanchett.

“There’s nothing wrong with pulling drowning people out of the water or trying to save families from the cold, or making sure pregnant women don’t give birth on a rock, or even showing kids that they really can be kids says Sean Binder, a volunteer, like Sara, who was arrested with her in 2018 and who interviewed Feldman for the documentary. “I believe everything we’ve done is right.”

Sara Mardini spoke with THR Rome in Berlin, the city that welcomed her five years ago and where she waits as a prison sentence of 25 years hangs over her head.

In the media we constantly see stories about shipwrecked off the Italian coast. Recently, bodies have washed up on the shore of the coastal town of Cutro. Yet NGOs on rescue missions are criminalized. Why?

Governments want to end the rescue of migrants and claim that volunteers, activists and NGOs encourage illegal crossings, which is simply not true. When I swam here in 2015, I had no idea if I would find anyone on the shore. In fact, no one was there when my sister and I were shipwrecked on Lesvos with others. The other side of this story is that the European Union and several governments have failed to take in the migrants they promised to take in. They claimed they were at maximum capacity, so they closed the borders. They made up the story about refugees coming because of the help of volunteers, when in fact they came because the borders opened in 2015, but that too has changed.

Your story and that of your sister have inspired two movies. You spoke at the UN. and your sister, Yusra, met Barack Obama. Has this changed you?

No not at all. Of course I am older and more experienced, but I am still the same person who left Syria seven years ago, and so is my sister. But we have become stronger and have more faith in the words we speak and the values ​​we fight for. Unfortunately, we have been repeating the same words every day for seven years, demanding the same rights and defending the same people. We explain that people who come from Syria, Africa or Iran are no different from people born in Europe: they were just born under different circumstances. It’s a little sad that we still have to repeat this, but one day there will be no more discrimination, regardless of origin, language and skin color. There are many people in Europe who did not even know where Syria was before the war. But all you have to do is google it.

(from left) Yusra and Sarah Mardini were honored with the German Bambi Award in 2016 for their humanitarian work


Several governments insist that migration must be contained. Is that even possible?

It clearly isn’t. The truth is that they are not willing to do the necessary work to integrate people. It’s just a matter of attitudes. If a French girl wants to study in Germany, that is technically migration too. But she can easily take the plane and she won’t have any problems because she has that right. The refugee does not do that and therefore has difficulty integrating. For example, Muslim holidays do not exist here in Germany, we have to go to work anyway. Ramadan is not recognized. Many do not understand, while it is a holy month for us. European societies are simply not ready to take different cultures into account and give everyone the same rights. This is hard for us.

You lived through the war in Syria. While it may seem like a simple question, we know it isn’t. Can you tell us why you ran, how you ended up on that boat?

A simple answer to a simple question. I lost my house, the house I grew up in. I had no place to live anymore. From one moment to the next I could no longer go to school or to the swimming pool. Living in a war situation means every time you say goodbye to your family and walk out the door, it could be your last. No one deserves to live in such conditions. It is a fundamental human right to live in a safe place, to feel safe to be safe to live your life, to go out and follow your dreams. I don’t want to be afraid of dying every time I leave home: that’s one of the reasons we decided to leave. The other reason is that we wanted to swim. To pursue our passion and follow our dreams, like normal people.

What have you been accused of?

You can almost count them on one hand (laughs): criminal organization, money laundering, espionage, human trafficking, smuggling, fraud.

Spying? Real?

To me, the most absurd charge of all is money laundering. We had no money to launder! Which money? (laughs)

You once said in an interview that millions take to the streets to protest in the name of the climate, but that never happens for migrants.

Yes, I still argue about that. When people protest for the environment, I wonder: who are you doing it for? Is it only for the people living in Europe? The fact is that the world is split in two, there are those who live in survival mode and there are those who live normal lives. If you live in an absolutely safe situation, you can be creative and fight for the environment. But if you live in a refugee camp, there is no clean water and you don’t even have a mattress to sleep on, you just don’t have the space. A single tent can hold up to forty people – men, women, children. All kinds of skin diseases are rampant in these camps; doctors keep saying they’ve never seen anything like it before. So why don’t we fight for the people in these camps? If we can protest for the environment, why can’t we also fight for those who have been forced to flee their country and cross the sea? After all, there is a close link between migration and the environment. More and more people are leaving their country due to climate change.

Protesters support Sara Mardini in 'Long Distance Swimmer: Sara Mardini' documentary

Protesters support Sara Mardini in ‘Long Distance Swimmer: Sara Mardini’ documentary

©Docdays Productions/ Safe Passage Films

In this film you speak very openly about your vulnerabilities and about being in therapy.

Well, in Syria it is not customary to talk about mental health. I would like people to understand that seeking help does not mean that you are sick or that you have lost your mind. It’s more like going to the dentist, it’s basically the same thing. I think this is an important message for people coming from the Middle East.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am highly sensitive. I cry about everything in a split second, but at the same time I have this quarrelsome personality, this anger. Well, I think it’s okay to celebrate vulnerability. I especially wanted to share the impact of my story and of a prisoner without rights. You see, getting involved as a volunteer was the first thing I did after escaping Syria. I was only 21, at a time when I was so happy and I considered myself very lucky. Then suddenly someone comes and takes everything away, accuses me of these false claims and puts me in jail for something I didn’t do. It is normal to suffer. So I said to myself why not talk about it? Why not show everyone what many don’t see? That is, many volunteers give everything they can offer. Some think we are people with time to waste, that we don’t know what to do with our lives and that in these camps we look for our soul mates. It’s all false. I met people who chose to volunteer rather than go on vacation, people who forgo a paycheck to help other people. Showing fragility is also a way of saying that volunteers deserve respect.

How is your lawsuit going?

It has now been four years since I was detained. During the first trial, which took place a few months ago, the felony charges were dropped. We are now waiting for the more serious allegations to be dealt with. It’s basically a waiting game, a very expensive game.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

Latest stories