Swimming to Berlin

Two female Syrian swimmers who saved others from drowning while fleeing the war: Their heroic flight from war-torn Syria made the Mardini sisters, Yusra and Sarah, famous all over the world. 

The Mardini sisters, Yusra and Sarah
The Mardini sisters, Yusra and Sarah dpa

Two sisters. Their father is a swimming coach; both started swimming at a very young age. They trained, they competed and their lives were like those of lots of children from ordinary middle-class families. Yet there is nothing ordinary about these sisters.

They kept the boat above water

They come from Syria where they had to flee the war. From Lebanon they traveled to Turkey, and from there they crossed the Mediterranean to Greece. When the engine of the inflatable boat they and countless other migrants were crammed into suddenly broke down, they leapt into the sea and helped keep the boat above water for several hours.

They made it to the coast and from there to Macedonia and Hungary and then finally on to Germany, where they caught the attention of the media. Two female Syrian swimmers who saved others from drowning while fleeing the war – their story catapulted the two young women into the global spotlight.

One of the world’s most influential teenagers

The girls’ odyssey ended in Berlin in 2015, and from that point on the sisters’ stories have taken diverging paths. Yusra Mardini is now 21 years old. In Germany, she took up where she had left off in Syria: training to swim. She joined the swimming club Wasserfreunde Spandau 04, where sports officials noticed her and nominated her for the new refugee team that was to compete at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Yusra qualified and by the time she clambered out of the pool after her races in 2016, she had become an international star and one of the few feel-good stories of the global refugee crisis. She met Barack Obama and the Pope. Time magazine named her one of the world’s most influential teenagers.

A special ambassador for the UN Refugee Agency

Yusra is now also a special ambassador for the UN Refugee Agency. She travels the world and takes the stage at events. In one interview, Yusra announced that she wants to use her fame to give other refugees hope. So she tells her story repeatedly, most recently in a book titled after her favorite swimming stroke – “Butterfly” – in which she recounts how her family’s home in Syria was caught between the front lines, how their house was destroyed, how a bomb hit their local pool.

After bombs forced the family to move six times in two years, the sisters realized they would rather risk their lives and flee Syria than continue living in a war zone. Their mother then sent her daughters to Europe with a relative. Yusra can still clearly remember sitting with her sister in the plane from Beirut to Istanbul. It was full of Syrians and the cabin crew threatened to arrest anyone trying to bring a life jacket with them. Since fleeing Syria, she has avoided the sea, says Yusra. But she still wanted to keep swimming.

Read the whole text on The German Times website

Verena Mayer is an editor for the Süddeutsche Zeitung in Berlin.

© The German Times