I knew even before logging into Netflix to sit down and watch this with my mother, that we would end up in tears. Tears of trauma and pain, but also tears of pride and joy. I want to tell you all why. If you don’t want any spoilers to the film, maybe don’t read this movie review just yet and go give it a watch.
Directed by Sally El-Hosaini; a Welsh- Egyptian film director and screenwriter; ‘The Swimmers’, is an incredibly touching movie that documents the tragic, true tale of Syrian sisters, Sara and Yusra Mardini. The Mardini sisters came from Darayya, a suburb of Syria’s Damascus, and fled their home at the height of the Civil War in 2015. Raised by their mother and father, they had a little sister, Shahad, and a pet canary, Lulu.
Their father was their swimming coach, and dreamed that one day his girls would represent their country at the Olympics. When the situation in Syria began to get more volatile, Sara and Yusra, scared for them and their family’s safety, begged their father to see reason and allow them to immigrate to Germany with their cousin, Nizar.
The sisters had seen many of their friends die in the daily bombings, and had come very close to death themselves several times, but then came the day, during a national competition that Yusra was participating in, their sports facility was bombed. A striking scene of the movie shows Yusra in the pool with a rocket that had landed in the water, pointing towards her, almost hitting the ground. Eventually, it doesn’t end up exploding.
Their father agrees to send them to Germany, as long as they follow the route he planned out for them. They were to take a flight to Istanbul, and from there hire a smuggler to get them through the Bulgarian route to Germany. Instead, due to the sheer dumb confidence their cousin Nizar had in his leadership skills, they arrived in Istanbul, got a bus to the coast and then onto a boat headed for Lesbos, Greece.
A treacherous and near fatal ride across the Aegean Sea ensued, in an overcrowded rubber dinghy meant for six to eight people, but carrying eighteen.
After the motor failed, the boat started to sink halfway through the journey. Sara and Yusra tied the dinghy’s rope around themselves and jumped into the water, to lighten the boat and prevent it from capsizing. The Mardini sisters swam the Aegean Sea for three hours, pulling that dinghy behind them, until they reached Greek land. The image El-Hosaini portrays of those passengers struggling to keep calm while the dinghy starts to fill up with water is heartbreaking, and reminded me of these lyrics the Tunisian rapper Balti sings in his song, ’Âlo’,
Hello my dear, what sent the youth to Italy?
They drowned in the high waves of the sea!
Hello? Hello? Hello, my life, where are you?
Hello, my friends, where are you?
Hello, my father, where are you?
Hello? Hello? Hello, send my dearest mother my love,
I’m living in a place full of strangers
& I don’t know where my home is…
According to the Human Rights Watch, nearly 25,000 refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea since 2014.
Having arrived in Greece, they make their way to the Lesbos UN refugee camp to settle down, before continuing their journey forward. Along it, they encountered human traffickers, survived rape attempts, got ripped off by smugglers and left in the middle of unknown land, withstood indignation, and faced months of red tape and slow German bureaucracy while awaiting asylum.
It was in Berlin, while staying at their refugee housing, that the girls met Sven Spannenkrebs, a swimming coach that agreed to start training Yusra for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Summer Olympics, representing the Refugee Olympic team. She competed again in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, finally achieving her and her father’s dream, and lifting her family’s head high.
El-Hosaini so gently conveyed the reality of the injustices of war that millions of people face all over the world. The neverending bureaucracy and endless waiting, just to be accepted and seen as a person worthy of having a new home. I would be a liar to say I can completely understand the pain, fear and grief of the Mardini sisters, as they swam across that sea and faced all those horrors.
But I can relate to the stigma and taboo of being a refugee, or of even uttering the words, “refugee” or “asylum”. I can relate to the stereotypes, the xenophobia and the racism. But most frankly, I can relate to some of that pain, fear and grief I spoke about earlier. I, like the Mardinis, like my sisters; Yosra, Dana, Genwa and Nour, and every other beautiful Arab soul that I’ve met in my short lifetime, had to leave our homes due to the same reasons. Our countries set on fire around ten years ago, and no one’s come to help put them out since. We’ve lost family members, homes, friends and childhoods that we can never bring back, and we picked ourselves up, packed whatever belongings we could, and settled in completely new places. We can all bond in those common experiences.
But for what reason? What reason could be so good enough to justify all this sacrifice, loss and hurt? Why are Syria and Libya completely decimated? Why has Palestine been under oppression and apartheid for over seventy years? Why was Iraq destroyed by an invasion under false pretences? Why are the Yemenis fighting a war against each other when their children are starving to death? Why is Lebanon still cleaning the dust and rubble of the Beirut bombing two years ago?
I guess I can never really answer those why’s, but what I can state with confidence is that if you ever encounter an Arab meeting another, in foreign lands, you will feel that unbreakable bond of love and pain shouting at you from across the room, like a twin meeting its lost counterpart after so much time away. This movie broke my heart, and then immediately restored it, reminding me that through anguish comes an even stronger feeling of pride for having a story like mine, and being able to share a story like the Mardini sisters, who have permanently inspired me, and I hope, you too.