Syrian Refugee Sara Mardini on Her Long Swim to Freedom, Netflix’s ‘The Swimmers’ and Her Trial

Syrian Refugee Sara Mardini on Her Long Swim to Freedom, Netflix’s ‘The Swimmers’ and Her Trial
Jun 2023

The 27-year-old and her sister saved 18 people by dragging a sinking barge to the Italian coast. The subject of a Netflix film and new documentary, Mardini now finds herself on trial for helping migrants to safety in Europe.

"Many imagine the Mediterranean as water, sea, and nature," says Sara Mardini. "But for me, and for many others, it's a graveyard. It's 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 adrift on a barge on the stretch of sea between the Middle East and Europe, what the Italians call the mare nostrum. There were 18 people on board, on a boat built for seven. When the engine failed, and the vessel started to take on water, Sara dove into the water. Yusra followed. They were both strong swimmers who dreamed of competing in the Olympics. Together they swam for hours, pushing and pulling the barge until they finally made landfall 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.

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That night was just the beginning of the sisters' odyssey. They traveled, by foot, by train, and by bus, across 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 Lesbos and began work as a volunteer in the Moria refugee camp, an "open-air prison" in the words of Human Rights Watch. There she welcomed migrants and distributed blankets while also working as a translator, listening and providing comfort where she could.

"I'd tell them: 'I know how you feel' because I'd had the same experience and I survived," she recalls. "I'd say that again and again. It reassured them to know that I was a refugee, just like them."

But Sara's commitment would cost her. In 2018, at the age of 23, she was arrested by Greek authorities, accused of aiding 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 is still awaiting trial.

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

"There is nothing wrong with pulling drowning people out of water or trying to save families from freezing, or ensuring pregnant women don't go into labor on a rock, or even showing children that they can actually be children," says Sean Binder, a volunteer, like Sara, who was arrested with her back in 2018 and who Feldman interviewed for the documentary. "I believe that everything we have done is right."

Sara Mardini spoke with THR Roma in Berlin, the city that welcomed her five years ago, and where she waits while a 25-year sentence still hangs over her head.

We see stories of castaways off the Italian coast all the time in the media. Recently bodies washed up on the shore of the seaside village of Cutro. Yet NGOs on rescue missions are criminalized. Why?

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

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

No, not at all. I am older, of course, and I have more experience, but I am still the same person who left Syria seven years ago, and that goes for my sister too. But we have become stronger and have more belief in the words we speak and the values we fight for. Unfortunately, it's been seven years during which time we have been repeating the same words every day, demanding the same rights, defending the same people. We explain that people who come from Syria, Africa, or Iran are no different from people born in Europe: they are just born under different circumstances. It's kind of sad that we still have to repeat this over and over again, but the day will come when there will be no discrimination, regardless of origin, language, and skin color. There are a lot of people in Europe who didn't even know where Syria was before the war. But all you have to do is to Google it.

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

Obviously, it's not. The truth is that they're not willing to do the necessary work to integrate people. It's just a matter of viewpoints. If a French girl wants to study in Germany, technically that is also migration. But she can easily take the plane and she won't encounter any problems because she has that right. The refugee doesn't and therefore has difficulty integrating. For example, Muslim holidays here in Germany do not exist, we still have to go to work. Ramadan is not recognized. Many do not understand it, while for us it is a sacred month. European societies are simply not ready to take different cultures into consideration and provide the same rights for everyone. This is difficult for us.

You experienced war in Syria. Though it may seem like a simple question, we know it's not. Can you tell us why you fled, how you ended up on that boat?

A simple answer to a simple question. I lost my home, the home I grew up in. I no longer had a place to live. From one moment to the next, I could no longer go to school or to the swimming pool. Living in a situation of war means that 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 circumstances. It is a basic human right to live in a safe place, to feel safe to be safe to be able to live your life, 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 charged with?

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

Espionage? Really?

For me, the most absurd accusation of them all is money laundering. We had no money to launder! What money? (laughs)

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

Yes, I still get into arguments about this. When people protest for the environment, I ask myself, who are you doing it for? Is it only for the people who live in Europe? The fact is that the world is split in two, there are those living in survival mode and those living a normal life. When you live in an absolutely safe situation, you can be creative and you can 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. In a single tent, at times there are up to forty people - men, women, children. There are all sorts of skin diseases festering in these camps; doctors keep saying that they have never seen anything like this before. So, why don't we fight for the people in these camps? Why, if we can protest for the environment, can't we also fight for those who were forced to flee their countries and cross the sea? After all, there's a close link between migration and the environment. More and more people are leaving their countries due to climate change.

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

Well, in Syria it is not common to talk about mental health. I would like for 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 the same thing really. I think this is an important message for people who come from the Middle East.

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm ultra-sensitive. I cry over anything in a split second, but at the same time, I have this argumentative personality, this anger. Well, I think it's okay to celebrate vulnerability. Mostly, I wanted to share the impact of my story and of being a prisoner without rights. You see, getting involved as a volunteer was the first thing I did after I escaped from 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 prison for something I didn't do. It's natural to suffer. So I said to myself, why not talk about it? Why not show everyone what many don't see? Which is that many volunteers give everything they can offer. There are some who think we are people who have time to waste, that we don't know what to do with our lives, and that we're looking for our soul mates in these camps. It's all untrue. I met people who chose to volunteer instead of going on vacation, people who forgo a salary to help other people. Showing fragility is also a way of saying that volunteers deserve respect.

How is your legal case progressing?

It is now been four years since I was detained. During the first trial, which took place a few months ago, the misdemeanor charges were dropped. We are now waiting for the proceedings of the more serious accusations. It's basically a waiting game, a very expensive one.