In the middle of the Aegean Sea, an overcrowded dinghy carrying sisters Yusra and Sara along with 18 other asylum seekers abruptly stalls. Voyaging towards Greece to escape war-torn Syria, the boat serving as the transportation lifeline begins to flood. Both sisters decidedly jump out to lighten the weight onboard and spent the remaining three hours swimming to shore in the icy cold water. Everyone on the dinghy survives and makes it to Greece. As trained, lifelong swimmers, the two sisters’ love of swimming quickly transforms from merely a sport to a heroic act that was nothing short of inspiring.
Most notably known for being the story of a Syrian refugee’s journey to compete at the Olympics, The Swimmers is a film that tackles the trials and tribulations that come with the modern refugee experience. The Swimmers is a biographical drama directed by Sally El Hosaini and co-written with Jack Thorne, based on the true story of Syrian sisters Yusra and Sara Mardini. They escape the dangerous conditions posed by war in Syria and become refugees, showcasing a coming-of-age story thrust in the middle of a humanitarian crisis. In spite of their difficulties, Yusra goes on to win her 100-meter butterfly heat at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Real-life Lebanese sisters and actresses Nathalie and Manal Issa play 17-year-old Yusra and 20-year-old Sara, respectively.
First premiering at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival on September 8, 2022, The Swimmers has been available for streaming on Netflix in the U.S. since its release on November 23, 2022. This movie demonstrates the bond between two sisters, one girl’s passion of going to the Olympics, and the struggle for survival all under the overarching umbrella of the Syrian refugee crisis.
The movie begins in Damascus, Syria, where the Mardini sisters have always called home. It pans to a 2011 snapshot of them two playing in the pool, providing a glimpse of sisterhood that is entrenched throughout the rest of the film. It then foreshadows the Syrian revolution as older sister Sara watches the news, but she is immediately reassured by her mother that it could never happen in Syria. Fast forward to 2015, the Syrian war has erupted completely and changed their lives forever. The reality of life in war-torn Syria quickly sets in: unrelenting bombings, word of friends being killed, and the family’s personal brush with death. However, among all, their father’s ambitions to train his daughters in swimming and prepare them for success never cease to stop.
In the face of persisting danger, the Mardini family plans to send their two daughters and their cousin to Germany safely via Greece to apply for family reunification, but the plan goes wrong. Sara and Yusra are subjected to a perilous remainder of their expedition. In the case of the Mardini sisters, the dangerous path of escaping Syria was just the beginning. Nonetheless, they display resilience and ambition in reaching Germany, as well as their unwavering passion for swimming. During their time residing in Berlin refugee housing, Yusra’s internal drive and persistence land her a spot training with swim coach Sven Spannekrebs, the gateway to earning her position on the Refugee Olympic Team. This movie succeeds at exposing how an anticipated clear-cut venture for asylum can be riddled with detours full of danger, risk, and uncertainty.
The Swimmers reaches beyond the scope of Yusra’s journey to the Rio Olympics. This film humanizes the refugee crisis, and attempts to help dismantle common misunderstandings of refugees. Oftentimes, they are regular people thrown into these situations by extraordinary circumstances, yet end up discriminated against and stigmatized. The chemistry between Yusra and Sara reveals the scale and scope of emotions they felt throughout each stage of the journey. Despite the disparity of the situation, Sara kept Yusra’s spirits up through comedic relief and unrelentingly stuck by her side, even when stranded in Hungary due to Yusra refusing to escape hidden in the back of a box truck. The movie excels at connecting the audience with the sisters at a deep level, allowing the audience to see the sisters as more than just their label as refugees.
The film ends solemnly with this note: “Since 2011, 5.7 million Syrians have become refugees. There are over 30 million refugees worldwide, and half of them are under the age of 18.” Sara and Yusra’s experiences have inspired them to get involved in the crisis. After supporting Yusra in the Olympics and residing in Berlin temporarily, Sara returned back to Lesbos, Greece, their original point of entry from their expedition, and has provided aid to other refugees. However, she is part of a volunteer group being faced with smuggling charges. Various organizations such as Amnesty International, though, have claimed these charges as baseless and farcical. Yusra continued a professional swimming career and became the youngest Goodwill Ambassador for the U.N refugee agency UNHCR in April 2017.
While Yusra’s journey to the Olympics is surely unique, their journey escaping Syria to seek refuge is unfortunately not. Similarly, millions have attempted journeys to flee, resulting in many experiencing life in overcrowded refugee camps, as internally displaced persons, or in the midst of perpetual bureaucratic madness. Although the Syrian war is ongoing, Yusra and Sarah’s experience and activism serve as examples of Syrian civilian resiliency and hope for the future.