June 7, 2023

‘We were taught to be winners’: refugee turned Olympian Yusra Mardini on the Netflix drama of her life | Drama films

Halfway across the Aegean Sea, the motor on the boat carrying sisters Sara and Yusra Mardini away from war-torn Syria suddenly stalled. They had boarded the leaky rubber dinghy, designed to carry seven people, with 18 other refugees determined to make the journey from the Turkish coast to Europe, via Greece. As the overcrowded boat started to take on water, Sara knew that they had to reduce the weight onboard. Clinging to a rope, she leapt into the sea, closely followed by Yusra. The young sisters then spent three hours swimming alongside the boat, icy waves slapping them in the face. Incredibly the boat made it to the Greek island of Lesbos. All of the passengers survived.

There was a reason the sisters felt confident enough to leap into the water that day: they had a lifetime of swimming training, thanks to their coach father, Ezzat. Yusra had competed for Syria in the world championships, travelling to Dubai and Turkey to take part in competitions. “I was always special, all of my life,” says Yusra today. “I had so many Syrian records, everyone knew who I was. My sister, too. We had had a leadership role since we were young, we were taught how to be winners, to lead, to come up with ideas out of nowhere.”

Until the Syrian civil war broke out in March 2011, the Mardini family – Sara, Yusra and Ezzat, physiotherapist mother Mervat, and little sister Shehad – lived a comfortable life in Daraya, a suburb of Damascus. Even then, the war didn’t disturb their lives too much – amid demonstrations and crackdowns the sisters continued to train in their local pool. But by August the following year, the conflict was becoming impossible to ignore. There was fighting and heavy bombing in Daraya. Over the next few years, amid increasing chaos in the area, the family’s house was destroyed, and Ezzat was detained and tortured by paramilitaries in a case of mistaken identity. One day an unexploded bomb landed in the pool where Yusra was training. Sara was convinced that to have a future, the sisters needed to leave. By August 2015 their parents had agreed to send them on the perilous journey to Europe, first flying to Istanbul, then paying traffickers to take them to Greece, and overland to Germany.

The Swimmers, with Manal Issa as Sara Mardini (far left) and Nathalie Issa as Yusra Mardini (also in the water).
The Swimmers, with Manal Issa as Sara Mardini (far left) and Nathalie Issa as Yusra Mardini (also in the water).
Photograph: Laura Radford/Netflix

The sisters did indeed reach Germany, after a long and traumatic journey. There, they made contact with the swimming club near the refugee centre where they were living. The coach at the pool, Sven Spannenkrebs, not only agreed to let them train, but managed to get Yusra on to the newly formed refugee team for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Just a year after that near-deadly boat trip, Yusra was in Rio, where she made headlines around the world by winning a heat.

Now aged 24, Yusra recalls what happened next. “My life basically turned upside down,” she tells me on a video call from her home in Berlin, her open and expressive face framed by dark-rimmed glasses. Yusra was subject to a whirlwind of global acclaim; she met Barack Obama and the Pope, and was appointed the youngest ever goodwill ambassador for the UN’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR). She had been approached even before the Olympics by producers wanting to put her life story on screen. She turned down all the offers: “Going to the Olympics was my dream, and I wanted to focus on that.”

She travelled the world, speaking about her experiences and meeting other refugees, appointed a management team to represent her, and agreed to a ghostwritten autobiography, Butterfly, which came out in 2018. She now has a worldwide following. Her Instagram account (354,000 followers) documents her swimming, her campaigning work on refugees’ rights, and her love of fashion. “One day I want to start my own fashion brand,” she says, and there is enough steel in her sparkly smile to leave you in no doubt that she will.

After repeated approaches from the freelance producer Ali Jaafar – “He just did not give up” – she eventually agreed to a film adaptation (as she points out: “Who would be crazy enough to say no to a film about your life?”). The Swimmers, which premiered last month at the Toronto film festival, screens today at the London film festival and streams on Netflix next month, was made by Working Title, the British company responsible for feelgood hits including Love Actually and Bridget Jones’s Diary (a decisive factor for Yusra: “It’s one of my favourite movies!”). It is a production involving some of the biggest names in British stage and screen, from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child scriptwriter Jack Thorne to executive producer Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot). It was directed by Welsh-Egyptian Sally El Hosaini, acclaimed for her debut, My Brother the Devil.

The Swimmers is skilfully put together with a mass audience firmly in its sights. It marries the light of Yusra’s success with the dark of their experiences: we join Sara and Yusra in that sinking boat, of course, but also witness a sexual assault on Yusra by a trafficker, the endless, soul-sucking immigration queues, the bleak grey detention centre where they have to share cell-like living quarters in an industrial hangar following their arrival in Germany. Fellow travellers on their odyssey across Europe will get lost, get deported. Their aspiring DJ cousin Nizar, who accompanies them on their journey, ends up depressed and desperate to go back to Syria. “Lots of people don’t have a happy ending. We wanted to tell this story so that everyone can think about them, too,” Yusra says. “The goal of this movie is way bigger than my story – we want it to make an impact on the world.”

Sara, left, and Yusra Mardini at the Toronto film festival last month.
Sara, left, and Yusra Mardini at the Toronto film festival last month. Photograph: Valérie Macon/AFP/Getty Images

The film follows Yusra and Sara – their sisterhood, in good and bad times. We see them dancing to pop anthems in a Damascus nightclub – a scene based on the 16th birthday party that Sara threw for her younger sister before they left for Europe. “The whole club was full of our friends,” Yusra remembers, “and Sara’s friend was the DJ. It was a really nice party, and has really stuck with me.” It was important to Yusra and to El Hosaini that the film should challenge stereotypes about Arab women and show the reality of teenage life. “Believe me, the parties in Damascus are bigger than the ones in Berlin. We party and have a good time with our friends – the only difference is that in the west you get music from Spotify and Apple, while we use free websites. Teenagers’ interests are the same everywhere.”

The drama hints at, but skirts around, the fact that Yusra’s sudden fame caused complications in her relationship with her sister, and it certainly was no magic cure for the pain of exile. To add another layer of sororal intensity, the pair are played by real-life acting sisters Manal and Nathalie Issa. “Sara and I, we have been creative since we were young,” says Yusra. “It’s the same with Nathalie and Manal. That was the beauty of it because they come from a similar background, they knew exactly what we went through as girls. That’s what made it so amazing. Every time we watch it, we cry.”

In the film, Sara (Manal) is a headstrong party animal, sulky and leather-jacketed, the driving force behind the plan to leave Syria. She finds her own sort of redemption by abandoning swimming to go back to Greece, to the very beach in Lesbos where she landed just over a year earlier, to provide humanitarian assistance to desperate people arriving on the shore. Yusra (Nathalie) is a less abrasive character, who survives by means of a laser-like focus on reaching the Olympics.

For Yusra, the film reflects something accurate about her relationship with Sara. “I was always training, and she too, but she was more open-minded and curious about life – I had my own goals and my own system, and I was following that step by step. She was more spontaneous about life, which taught me a lot.” She sees the film as a fitting tribute to Sara’s guiding role in her life. “We went through everything together – who would you trust more than your sibling to go through that with? I shared my whole life with her… I always copied her because she was a hero to me.”

Nathalie Issa as Yusra Mardini in The Swimmers.
Nathalie Issa as Yusra Mardini in The Swimmers. Photograph: Netflix

In past interviews, Sara has told a more complicated story. She has said that she loved swimming just as much as Yusra, but was forced to abandon it once she got to Germany because of a shoulder injury, and “physical and emotional pain”.

In a shocking development that is relegated to one frame in the film’s closing credits, Sara was arrested in 2018 while doing humanitarian work on Lesbos. She was kept in jail for more than three months, charged with spying, smuggling and belonging to a criminal organisation – charges Amnesty International has described as “trumped up” and “farcical”. Sara is now facing a maximum prison sentence of 25 years. In November 2021, a Greek court adjourned the case, and according to Sara’s co-defendant, Seán Binder, further delays could mean that the case drags on for more than another decade. “The delay seems to be a tactic to punish legitimate rescue operations,” he writes in an email. “This prosecution is effectively persecution. We’ve faced huge financial, personal and psychological strain since this began. But even more frighteningly, if we can be criminalised, then anyone who helps [refugees] can be.”

In a Ted talk in 2019, Sara spoke about the psychological toll that the situation had put on her: having survived the war and escape from Syria in good health, after her arrest she was diagnosed with PTSD and depression. When I ask Yusra about how her sister is now, her eyes flicker to the corner of the screen and her face clouds over. “It’s scary for her to start with anything, because she doesn’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” she says. What is the latest development with the case? “You’ll have to speak to her lawyer… I can’t really talk about her experience to be honest. I think she should be speaking about it, but she chose not to speak to media right now because she’s taking care of her mental health. She’s just… taking some time off.”

Yusra thinks that the film is positive for Sara, too. “She’s taking it all in, enjoying that the movie is going out. It could be hard for her because now lots of people know what’s going on. I hope it will be over soon and the movie will push things in the right direction for her and the other people involved.” When I ask about the impact of Sara’s arrest on Yusra and the rest of her family, she makes it clear that it’s too difficult for her to talk about. “My family and I would like to keep that part private.”

We move on, and soon Yusra is back to her excitable self, chattering about future plans. With the focus and determination that characterised her athletic career, she is forging ahead, and plans to do a degree in film and TV production. “I’m interested in fashion, acting, and the entertainment world. Those are my ambitions for now, but they change very quickly to be honest.” One constant is her work on refugee rights, with the forthcoming launch of a charitable foundation in Germany and the US aiming to help refugees through sport and education. “I will always work for refugees because I will always be one – even though I just got my German passport.”

As a child, before the war, Yusra’s ambition was to represent Syria at the Olympics. She got as far as qualifying for the team for Tokyo – but decided to rejoin the refugee team instead. I wonder whether that was a tricky political decision. “I always represent Syria in everything I do, but refugee is my identity now.” With the film and the foundation soon to launch, her eyes are, as ever, fixed on the horizon. “I’m excited to start a new chapter where I can literally help refugees, not just speak about it. Perhaps I will be able to replace those tents [in refugee camps] with buildings. Maybe I will be the person politicians finally listen to – who knows?”

The Swimmers is released in selected UK cinemas from 11 November, and on Netflix from 23 November