The Real Story Behind Netflix’s Swimmers

Film producers lined up to secure the rights to the life story of professional swimmers Yusra and Sara Mardini in 2016, but the sisters turned down multiple offers. The brothers were known for their incredible stories of survival and heroism, but after fleeing Syria’s ongoing civil war just a year ago, they weren’t ready for the world to see it on screen.

During their journey, the sisters arrived in Turkey by plane and hoped to reach Germany via Greece by boat. They were up against the chilly waves of the Aegean Sea when an overcrowded boat carrying 18 other asylum seekers suddenly stopped. Without hesitation, the Mardini sisters jumped into the water, grabbed the ropes with two other passengers and used their lifelong swimming skills to pull 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 was my dream since I was 9 years old, so I wanted to enjoy every taste,” recalls Yusra, now 24, who is preparing to compete for the first time as part of the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics. refugee team. “Some producer said I said no one would be interested in the story after Rio, and I told them, ‘It’s fine, I’m here to swim,'” he adds.

This producer made a mistake. On November 23, the story of the Mardini sisters finally comes to the screens SwimmersComing to Netflix directed by Sally El Hosaini.

Nathalie Issa as Yusra Mardini, Manal Issa as Sara Mardini, Ahmed Malek as Nizar

Laura Radford/Netflix

What is happening Swimmers?

The film follows the simple lives of 17-year-old Yusra and 20-year-old Sara (played by Nathalie and Manal Issa, respectively) in Daraya, Damascus, as Syria’s civil war rages. What began as peaceful, pro-democracy demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 turned into a full-scale war as the government met with deadly force against the opposition. Before that, the sisters took swimming lessons under their father’s tutelage, hung out with friends, and spent time with their parents, little sister, and Lulu the bird (a stand-in for their real-life cat).

As it becomes difficult to escape the effects of war, Sara convinces her family that she and Yusra, along with her cousin Nizar (Ahmad Malek), should travel to Germany, where some of her friends have fled. Their plan is to apply for family reunification before Yusra turns 18, which would allow the rest of her family to join them. . There, a confident Yusra joins the local swimming club, brags about her time, and is sponsored by coach Sven, who trains her to join the first refugee team at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Yusra recalls: “I watched the film for the first time with my sister, and we cried, then laughed, then cried again.” “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 is and how close we are,” says Sarah, now 27, adding that she and Yusra went their separate ways after arriving in Germany. Yusra continued her professional sports career and also became the youngest UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador in April 2017, while Sara returned to Greece in August 2016 to provide life-saving aid to other refugees.

Manal Isa in “Swimmers”.

Ali Güler/Netflix

What was Yusra and Sara’s journey from Syria to Germany really like?

It took Yusra and Sara 25 days to reach Germany from Syria, the first part of the journey was by flight and then by boat to Greece. Yusra says: “Then we walked, walked, used buses and taxis.

Recalling the most difficult part of their journey, when they swam for more than three hours in the Aegean Sea, Sara says she thought nothing of it. “I was scared to death, but I felt that someone had to do it to lighten the ship,” he recalls. Yusra recalls that while they were trying to stabilize the boat, his mind was also blank because he 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 accept the term “refugee”: “People looked at you as if you had some kind of disease, you weren’t human.” .

Read more: Finding Home: A Year in the Life of a Syrian Refugee

But one of the joys of being a refugee was being part of a diverse community that looked out for each other. Sara said there were up to 30 people waiting to cross the waters in Turkey and they had become a “big family”, adding that they slept in a rotation system to keep each other safe.

What do Yusra and Sara want people to take away from their life stories?

After witnessing people’s shock when they don’t fit the stereotype of an oppressed refugee, Yusra wants to challenge the idea that refugee identity is monolithic. He also hopes the film dispels the misconception that people leave their countries to enjoy the resources of the host country: “It’s not a luxury life, you have to fill out so much paperwork, some people get depressed and some don’t. accepted by the host societies – they must leave behind everything they know. He wants viewers to remember that a little act of kindness goes a long way toward those who are desperate.

In the meantime, Sara hopes people understand that unmarried male refugees like her cousin Nizar are “10 times more difficult” than women or children. “They’re the last people to be scrutinized or cared about,” but they’re often vilified in the media, he says. She was also spared the idea that people would see her half of the story as equally credible and fearless after she was identified as Yusra’s sister – given the Olympian’s high profile, after she won the opening heat of the 100m butterfly. Time 1 minute 9.21 seconds in 2016.

Nathalie Issa as Yusra Mardini and Manal Issa as Sara Mardini in The Swimmers

Laura Radford/Netflix

Where are the Mardini sisters now and what awaits them?

Growing up, the Mardini sisters say they were so attached at the hip that they were more like twins, but now they’re on different paths and even continents. Yusra returned to Tokyo 2020 Olympics last year; he qualified for the Syrian team but still chose to be with the refugee team, and he is currently studying film and television production in California.

He also continues his UN ambassadorship, which he says covers local issues in refugee camps and advocates at high-level events: “I will tell my story a million times until I see change,” Yusra said.

Meanwhile, Sarah, who still enjoys swimming for pleasure, spent a tumultuous few years working for a refugee aid organization in Lesvos, which led to her and two colleagues being arrested by Greek authorities in 2018. Charges brought against the three employees They were suspected of trafficking and smuggling migrants to Greece, as well as espionage and money laundering. Sara spent 107 days in jail before being released on bail. Sara says they only received an English translation of the case documents in November, and last week she was able to return to the Greek court to file a memorandum saying they still believe they are innocent.

While the trio await their January court date, Sara returns to Berlin 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 currently live in Berlin. Sarah says they haven’t returned to visit Syria yet, but hope to do so together. “This is a new beginning,” he concludes.

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write to Armani Syed at armani.syed@time.com.