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“Many imagine the Mediterranean as water, sea and nature,” says Sara Mardini. “But for me, and for many others, it is a cemetery. It’s literally a death sentence.”
Mardini closes his 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 in the stretch of sea between the Middle East and Europe, what Italians call the mare nostrum. There were 18 people on board, on a boat built for seven people. When the engine failed and the ship began to take on water, Sara jumped 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 landed on a beach on the Greek island of Lesvos. For Sara, Yusra, and the others on the boat that night, the Mediterranean’s death sentence was commuted.
That night was only 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 fulfilled her dream and participated in the 2016 and 2020 Olympics as a member of the refugee track and field team. Sara decided to return to Lesbos and began working 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 she also worked as a translator, listening and providing comfort where she could.
“I would tell them, ‘I know how you feel’ because I’ve had the same experience and survived it,” she recalls. “I would say it over and over. She reassured them knowing 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 the Greek authorities, accused of aiding and abetting 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 Fictional Story Told by Sally El Hoseini in Netflix Drama The swimmers, starring Nathalie and Manal Issa and premiered in Toronto last year. A documentary centered on Sara, Long Distance Swimmer — Sara Mardini, by director Charly Wai Feldman took his bow at Hot Docs fest in Toronto in April. Earlier this year, Time the magazine put Sara and Yusra on their list of The 100 most influential people of 2023with a commentary written by Cate Blanchett.
“There is nothing wrong with pulling drowning people out of the 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 really can be children,” says Sean Binder, a volunteer, like Sara, who was arrested with her in 2018 and whom Feldman interviewed for the documentary. “I think everything we’ve done is right.”
He spoke with Sara Mardini THR Rome 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 shipwrecked off the coast of Italy all the time in the media. The bodies were recently found on the shore of the seaside village of Cutro. Yet NGOs on rescue missions are criminalized. Why?
Governments want to end the rescue of migrants, claiming 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’d find anyone on the coast. In fact, nobody was there at all when my sister and I, along with others, were shipwrecked on Lesbos. The other side of the story is that the European Union and various governments have failed to welcome the migrants they promised to welcome. They claimed they were at capacity, so they closed the borders. They made up the story of refugees arriving with help from volunteers, when in reality they came because the borders opened in 2015, but that too has changed.
Your story and that of your sister inspired two films. You spoke to the UN. and your sister, Yusra, met with Barack Obama. Has this changed you?
No not at all. I’m older, of course, and have more experience, but I’m still the same person who left Syria seven years ago, and that goes for my sister as well. But we have grown stronger and have more faith in the words we speak and in the values we stand for. Unfortunately, we have been repeating the same words every day for seven years, we demand the same rights, we defend the same people. We explain that people who come from Syria, Africa or Iran are no different from people born in Europe: they are simply born into different circumstances. It’s a bit sad that we still have to repeat it again and again, but the day will come when there will be no more discrimination, regardless of origin, language and skin colour. There are many people in Europe who didn’t even know where Syria was before the war. But all you have to do is google it.
Several governments insist that migration must be contained. It’s possible?
Of course it isn’t. The truth is, they are not willing to do the work necessary to integrate people. It’s just a matter of point of view. If a French girl wants to study in Germany, technically that is also migration. But she can easily get on the plane and she won’t have a problem because she has the right to. The refugee does not and therefore has difficulty integrating. For example here in Germany there are no Muslim holidays, 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 guarantee the same rights to all. This is difficult for us.
You lived through the war in Syria. While it may seem like a simple question, we know it’s not. Can you tell us why you escaped, how you ended up on that boat?
A simple answer to a simple question. I lost my home, the home where I grew up. 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 war situation 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 able to live your life, go out and follow your dreams. I don’t want to be afraid of dying every time I leave the house: this is one of the reasons why 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 the fingers of one hand (laughs): conspiracy, money laundering, espionage, human trafficking, smuggling, fraud.
To me the most absurd charge of all is money laundering. We had no money to launder! What money? (laughs)
In an interview, you once said that millions of people take to the streets to protest in the name of the climate, but for migrants it never happens.
Yes, I still argue about this. When people protest the environment, I wonder, who are you protesting for? Is it only for people living in Europe? The fact is that the world is split in two, there are those who live in survival mode and those who live 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’s 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, there are sometimes up to forty people – men, women, children. There are all kinds of skin diseases that plague 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? Why, if we can protest for the environment, can’t we also fight for those who have been forced to flee their countries and cross the sea? After all, there is 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 frailties and being in therapy.
Well, in Syria it is not common to talk about mental health. I wish people understood that seeking help does not mean you are sick or have lost your mind. It’s more like going to the dentist, it’s actually the same thing. I think this is an important message for people who are from the Middle East.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m super 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. Above all, I wanted to share the impact of my story and being a prisoner without rights. You see, getting involved as a volunteer was the first thing I did after fleeing Syria. I was only 21, at a time when I was so happy and 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 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 all they can offer. There are those who think that we are people who have time to waste, that we don’t know what to do with our lives and that we are looking for our soul mate in these fields. It’s all fake. I’ve met people who have chosen to volunteer instead of going on vacation, people who give up a paycheck to help other people. Showing fragility is also a way of saying that volunteers deserve respect.
How is your lawsuit progressing?
It has been four years since I was detained. During the first trial, which took place a few months ago, the crime charges were dropped. The proceeding of the most serious charges is now awaited. It’s basically a waiting game, very expensive.