Wellilm producers lined up in 2016 to secure rights to the life story of professional swimmers Yusra and Sara Mardini, but the sisters turned down multiple offers. The siblings were known for their remarkable story of survival and heroism, but having fled Syria’s ongoing civil war just a year earlier, they weren’t ready for the world to see it on screen.
During their trip, the sisters arrived in Turkey by plane and hoped to reach Germany via Greece by boat. They climbed against the chilling waves of the Aegean Sea, when the engine of the overcrowded boat carrying 18 other asylum seekers suddenly stalled. The Mardini sisters jumped into the water without hesitation, grabbed the ropes along with two other passengers and used their swimming skills to pull everyone to safety. That day, their 45-minute boat ride turned into a three-and-a-half-hour swim.
“I said no because I wanted to focus on the Olympics. It was my dream since I was 9 years old, so I wanted to enjoy every bit of it,” recalls Yusra, now 24, who was preparing to participate in The 2016 Rio Summer Olympics as part of the first ever refugee team. “Some producer said no one would care about the story after Rio and I told them, ‘It’s okay, I’m here to swim,'” she adds.
This producer was wrong. On November 23, the story of the Mardini sisters finally hits the screen as The swimmersdirected by Sally El Hossaini, is coming to Netflix.
Natalie Issa as Yusra Mardini, Manal Issa as Sara Mardini, Ahmed Malek as Nizar
What happens in The swimmers?
The film follows 17-year-old Yusra and 20-year-old Sarah (played by Nathalie and Manal Issa respectively) in their simple life in Daraya, Damascus, before it is disrupted by the escalation of the Syrian civil war. What began as peaceful, pro-democracy demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 escalated into full scale war when the government met dissidents with lethal force. Previously, the sisters participated in swimming lessons with their father’s instruction, partying with friends and spending time with their parents, younger sister and Lulu the bird (a real-life stand-in for their cat.)
As the effects of the war become more difficult to avoid, Sara convinces her family that she and Yusra, along with their cousin Nizar (Ahmed Malek), should embark on a trip to Germany, where some of their friends have fled. Their plan is to apply for family reunionwhich will allow the rest of their family to join them before Yusra turns 18. After a treacherous journey involving social stigma from disapproving European citizens and corrupt smugglers, the trio arrive in Berlin, where they refugees. There, a confident Yusra storms into a local swimming club, bragging about her time, and is sponsored by coach Sven, who trains her to join the first-ever refugee team at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“I watched the film for the first time with my sister and we cried, then laughed and then cried again,” Yusra recalls. “They did an amazing job. The two girls who played us were real sisters from Lebanon, so they understood our background.”
“The film was a reminder of how strong our relationship was and how super close we were,” says Sara, now 27, adding that she and Yusra went their separate ways after arriving in Germany. Yusra went on to a professional sports career and also became the youngest in history Goodwill Ambassador for the UN refugee agency in April 2017, while Sarah returned to Greece in August 2016 to provide life-saving aid to other refugees.
Manal Isa in The Swimmers
What was Yusra and Sarah’s journey from Syria to Germany really like?
It took Yusra and Sarah 25 days to get from Syria to Germany, with the first part of their journey taking place by flight, then by boat to Greece. “Back then it was on foot, we walked, we used buses, taxis, whatever we could use,” Yusra says.
Recalling the most taxable part of their travel, as they swam in the Aegean Sea for more than three hours, Sarah says she thought of absolutely nothing. “I was scared to death, but I felt like someone had to do it to make the boat lighter,” she recalled. Yusra remembers that her mind was also blank when they were trying to stabilize the boat because she was too focused on survival to think about anything else.
The sisters also experienced a lot of anti-immigrant prejudice and discrimination in Europe and initially struggled to embrace the term “refugee”: “People treated you like you had some disease, like you weren’t human,” Sarah says.
Read more: Finding a Home: A Year in the Life of a Syrian Refugee
But one joyous aspect of being a refugee was being part of a diverse community that looked out for each other. Sarah says there were about 30 people waiting to cross the waters in Turkey and they became a “big family”, adding that they slept on a rotating basis to keep each other safe.
What do Yusra and Sara want people to take away from their life story?
After witnessing people’s shock when she doesn’t fit their stereotype of a downtrodden refugee, Yusra wants to challenge the idea that refugee identity is monolithic. She also hopes the film counters the misconception that people flee their country because they want to enjoy the resources of the host nation: “It’s not a luxurious life, you have to fill out so much paperwork, some people get depressed , others not accepted by their host societies – they have to leave everything they know behind.” She wants viewers to remember that small acts of kindness to desperate people go a long way.
In the meantime, Sarah hopes people realize this single male refugees like their cousin Nizar, they have it “10 times harder” than women or children. “They’re the last to be scrutinized or cared for,” but they’re often vilified in the media, she says. She is also redeemed by the idea that people will see her side of the story as equally valid and fearless after years of being labeled as Yousra’s sister – due to the Olympian’s high profile after she won the opening heat of the 100m butterfly with a time of 1 minute 9.21 seconds in 2016.
Natalie Issa as Yusra Mardini and Manal Issa as Sarah Mardini in The Swimmers
Where are the Mardini sisters now and what’s next for them?
Growing up, the Mardini sisters say they were so attached at the hip they were more like twins, but now they’re on different paths and even continents. Yusra returned to Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games last year; she qualified for the Syrian team but chose to be on the refugee team and is currently studying film and television production in California.
She also continues to be an ambassador to the United Nations, which she says involves working on the ground refugee campsas well as advocacy at high-profile events: “I’m going to tell my story a million times until I see change,” Yusra says.
Meanwhile, Sarah, who is still passionate about swimming for pleasure, has had a tumultuous few years working with a refugee aid organization in Lesbos, which has led to her and two colleagues arrested by the Greek authorities in 2018. The charges brought against the three workers were on suspicion of trafficking and smuggling migrants to Greece, as well as espionage and money laundering. Sarah spent 107 days in prison before being released on bail. Sarah says they only received an English translation of their file in November and last week she was able to return to a Greek court to present a note stating they still believe they are innocent.
As the trio wait for their January court date, Sara returns to Berlin and wants to focus on her mental health and finally learn German properly: “I want to work on it and hopefully go back to school.” The rest of the family The Mardins crossed the sea to Europe in 2016 and now live in Berlin. Sarah says they haven’t been back to visit Syria yet, but hope to do so together. “It’s a new beginning,” she concludes.
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