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From refugee to Olympic swimmer: the true story turned into a film by Yusra Mardini

When Yusra Mardini She ranked 40th among the butterfly swimmers who competed in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, her story had already gone around the world. She did not go precisely because she was part of the then newly created refugee olympic teambut for the feat that together with his sister Sarah had starred a year before.

On the high seas, between the Turkish coast and the Greek island Lesbos, The Mardini prevented 20 people from joining the list of hundreds of drowned in the Mediterranean that summer of 2015, a figure that has unfortunately increased over the years.

By leaving behind the war in syria and heading to Europe along tortuous and illegal roads, the engine of the battered inflatable boat in which they were traveling stopped working. Overloaded with people who, like them, were fleeing war conflicts, others from famine or persecution, they were bait for human traffickers and mafias.

Poster for ‘The Swimmers’.

On board that boat, death seemed closer than the coast of European territory. The waves became higher and higher, the roughness of the sea pushed them every second towards the imminent danger of sinking. Shouting “Who knows how to swim?”, twenty-year-old Sara Mardini was the first to jump into the water, followed by her younger sister Yusra (17 years old), and with three other young people they pulled the boat with ropes.

Only they had physical training strong enough to face an extreme situation; it was not in vain that they were swimming champions in Syria, the country whose war had turned them into refugees. For more than three hours they swam non-stop until they reached the coast.

Although in the Mediterranean they saw the fangs of death, once on dry land the journey would continue on foot, exposed to countless dangers until reaching Germany, as more than a million people would do that year in what was called the great European migration crisis.

In telling their story, they were heroines

“How did we come to this? When did our lives start to be worth so little? Why did we decide to risk everything, pay a fortune to get on a crowded boat and risk everything at sea? Was this really the only way out? The only way to escape the bombs that were falling on our home?”

Yusra Mardini reflects in her autobiography Butterfly: From refugee to Olympic swimmer. My story of improvement and hope (Plaza & Janes Editores, 2019). The experiences and bravery of Yusra and Sara were seen as an extraordinary story to be brought to the cinema.

Supported by the aforementioned book, the result is the film The swimmersdirected by Sally El Hosaini and premiered worldwide on the Netflix platform.

“I saw in Yusra and Sara modern and liberal Arab women who almost never appear on the big screen”. The London-based director of Egyptian origin also stated in a German media outlet that they are generally victimized, such as in stories of honor killings and things like that.

“It has been satisfying to see women like the Mardini with whom I myself can identify and who I had the opportunity to portray as complex heroines,” the director concluded.

With The swimmers The spectators embark once again on the path taken by the Mardini, they feel with them the need to flee, the desire to survive and get ahead.

Still from ‘The Swimmers’.

Laura Radford / Netflix

A dream come true

The Mardinis’ passion for swimming comes from their father, who reached a professional level in this sport and wanted his daughters to follow in his footsteps, so he dedicated himself to training them intensely.

Although both had qualities to highlight, Yusra’s aimed to make her an elite athlete. “Find your lane, swim your race,” her father’s advice before each competition, would become a mantra for the future Olympic swimmer, as seen in the film.

The swimmersstarring the sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa, covers the sisters’ forging as athletes, as well as the life before the war in Syria, the journey and development of the Mardini, and concludes with Yusra’s participation in the Olympics. The happy ending – or something similar – although it touches the heart, we know that it is unusual among so many lives and dreams shattered by various circumstances.

At least Yusra, among millions of refugees, managed to make one of her dreams come true, which was to participate in the Olympics, something she would achieve twice as she was in the ranks of the refugee Olympic team in both Rio and Tokyo.

In real life, Yusra soon became considered a great inspiration, especially for girls and young people. Named by the magazine time as one of the most influential teenagers in 2016At the age of 19, she also became the youngest Goodwill Ambassador of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a position that she continues to actively carry out, combined with her university studies in the United States.

His sister Sara, who gave up swimming, would at first remain in the background; However, in the film she is rescued as the protagonist, and also as one of the driving forces of her younger sister.

Sara Mardini gave herself completely to activism. He returned to the Mediterranean, where a piece of her remained submerged forever, precisely to save lives. At the end of The swimmers We found out that is in danger of serving a prison sentence.

In 2018, Sara was detained for more than 100 days unjustly accused of human trafficking and espionagewhich reveals another attempt to criminalize humanitarian actions and solidarity towards refugees.

Manal Issa as Sara Mardini (left) and Nathalie Issa as Yusra Mardini (right) in ‘The Swimmers’.

Ali Güler / Netflix

After paying bail, he managed to return to Germany, where his family lives, who were finally able to leave Syria. If the trial to be held in her absence rules against her, she will be sentenced to 20 years in prison.

When reality surpasses fiction, darkness overwhelms, hence the importance of the luminosity that director Sally El Hosaini chooses to tell this story, avoiding any threat of falling into mere romanticizationputting the truth of thousands of refugees ahead of a Hollywood man happy ending.

Beyond fiction, the life of the Mardini sisters continues. His bravery, strength and heroism remain as an example for posterity.

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