Film producers were lining 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 after fleeing Syria’s ongoing civil war just one year earlier, they weren’t yet ready for the world to see it on screen.
During their journey, the sisters arrived in Turkey on a plane and hoped to reach Germany via Greece on a boat. They went up against the chilling waves of the Aegean Sea, when the motor on the overcrowded dinghy carrying 18 other asylum seekers suddenly stalled. The Mardini sisters jumped into the water without hesitating, grabbed hold of the ropes along with two other passengers, and used their lifelong swimming skills to drag 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 had been a dream of mine since I was 9 years old, so I wanted to enjoy every single bit of it,” recalls Yusra, now 24, who was gearing up to participate at Rio’s 2016 Summer Olympics as part of the first-ever refugee team. “Some producer said no one is going to be interested in the story after Rio and I told them ‘That’s OK, I’m here to swim,’” she adds.
That producer was wrong. On Nov. 23, the Mardini sisters’ story finally hits the screen as The Swimmers, directed by Sally El Hosaini, arrives on Netflix.
Nathalie 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 Sara (played by Nathalie and Manal Issa, respectively) in their simple life in Daraya, Damascus, before it was disrupted by the escalation of Syria’s civil war. What began as peaceful, pro-democracy demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 escalated into a full-scale war when the government met dissidents with deadly force. Before this, the sisters participated in swim lessons with coaching from their father, partied with friends, and spent time with their parents, younger sister, and bird Lulu (a stand-in for their real-life cat.)
As the effects of war become harder to avoid, Sara convinces her family that she and Yusra, along with their cousin Nizar (Ahmed Malek), should embark on a journey to Germany, where some of their friends have fled to. Their plan is to apply for family reunification, which would 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 become refugees. There, a confident Yusra barges into a local swimming club, boasting her times, and gains sponsorship 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 were crying and then laughing and then crying again,” recalls Yusra. “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 we were super close,” says Sara, now 27, adding that she and Yusra went on different paths after they arrived in Germany. Yusra continued a professional sporting career and also became the youngest ever Goodwill Ambassador for the U.N refugee agency in April 2017, while Sara returned to Greece in August 2016 to provide life-saving aid to other refugees.
Manal Issa in ‘The Swimmers’
What did Yusra and Sara’s journey from Syria to Germany really look like?
It took Yusra and Sara 25 days to get from Syria to Germany, with the first portion of their trip taking place via flights then by boat to Greece. “Then it was by foot, we walked, used buses, taxis, whatever we could use,” says Yusra.
Recalling the most taxing part of their journey, when they swam in the Aegean Sea for over three hours, Sara says she thought of absolutely nothing. “I was scared to die, but I felt like someone had to do it to make the boat lighter,” she recalls. Yusra recalls that her mind was also blank when they were trying to stabilize the boat because she was too focused on surviving to think about anything else.
The sisters also experienced a lot of anti-migrant prejudice and discrimination in Europe and initially struggled to embrace the term “refugee”: “People were treating you as if you have some kind of disease, like you’re not human,” says Sara.
But one joyful aspect of being a refugee was belonging to a diverse community that looked out for one another. Sara says there were as many as 30 people in Turkey waiting to cross the waters and they became a “big family,” adding that they slept on a rotation system 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 a monolith. She also hopes the film counters the misconception that people flee their country because they want to enjoy the resources of their host nation: “It’s not a luxurious life, you have to fill out so much paperwork, some people fall into depression, some are not accepted by their host societies—they have to leave behind everything they know.” She wants viewers to remember that small acts of kindness toward desperate people go a long way.
Meanwhile, Sara hopes people realize that single male refugees, much like their cousin Nizar, have it “10 times harder” than women or children. “They’re the last ones to be checked or to be taken care of” but they are often vilified in the media, she says. She is also redeemed by the idea that people will see that her half of the story is equally valid and fearless, after years of being defined as Yusra’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 and 9.21 seconds in 2016.
Nathalie Issa as Yusra Mardini and Manal Issa as Sara 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 that they were more like twins, but now they are on different paths and even continents. Yusra returned to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics last year; she qualified for team Syria but still chose to be on the refugee team, and she is currently studying film and television production in California.
She is also continuing her U.N ambassadorship, which she says involves on-the-ground work at refugee camps, as well as advocating at high-level events: “I will tell my story a million times until I see change,” says Yusra.
Meanwhile, Sara, who is still passionate about swimming for enjoyment, has had a tempestuous few years working with a refugee aid organization in Lesbos, which led to her and two colleagues being arrested by Greek authorities in 2018. The charges brought against the three workers were on suspicion of trafficking and smuggling migrants into Greece, as well as spying and money laundering. Sara spent 107 days in prison before she was released on bail. Sara says they only received an English translation of their case file in November, and last week she was able to return to a Greek courthouse to submit a memo stating that they still believe they are innocent.
While the trio await their January court date, Sara is back in Berlin and keen 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 Mardini family crossed the sea to Europe in 2016 and they now live in Berlin. Sara says they haven’t returned to visit Syria yet but they hope to do it together. “It’s a new beginning,” she concludes.