Syrian Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini was in Buenos Aires a few weeks ago, where she was named a role model in the 2018 Summer Youth Olympic Games.
The trip had been in the works for a while and she was excited about it, yet her mind was in Athens, and specifically Korydallos Prison, where her sister Sarah is in pretrial custody on charges of participating in an illegal migrant smuggling network while she was working as a volunteer with refugees on the eastern Aegean island of Lesvos.
On the first day of events at the Games, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach invited Yusra to attend a fencing competition with him. “How is Sarah?” he asked with genuine concern.
The story of the two girls who in 2015 rescued 18 fellow refugees on the treacherous crossing from Turkey to Greece when their boat capsized made headlines around the world, and the pair became a global symbol of hope amid the migration crisis.
“She is strong,” Yusra replied to Bach. She herself tries to be strong as well, knowing there is great support for her sister’s release.
Sarah’s recent troubles began on August 21, when, as she wrote in a Facebook post, she was planning to leave Lesvos, describing her decision as “hard but the right one for my future.” She was planning to return to Berlin and continue her studies.
The 23-year-old had started studying law in Syria, then thought about become a dentist when she reached Europe and, somewhere along the way, possibly because of everything that happened to her, decided to go into social sciences.
During her last days on Lesvos, she said goodbye to friends, gathered all the documents she needed to take her adopted cat to Berlin, and asked that rather than getting her a going-away present, her friends made a small donation in support of volunteer groups working with migrants and refugees on the Greek island.
On August 20, a day before her planned departure, she went to the beach with some of her friends and launched 20 lanterns into the water, representing the 20 people on her boat who had made it to Europe exactly three years earlier.
“The journey was three-and-a-half hours but felt like 24,” she told her friends.
At Izmir on the coast of Turkey, a rough-spoken smuggler had packed Sarah, Yusra and another 18 people – among them an infant – onto a small inflatable dinghy built for a maximum of eight passengers. Sarah was worried that something bad was going to happen, but was in no position to protest. The engine failed just 15 minutes after they set off.
Someone had a cell phone and tried to get in touch with rescue services, but to no avail. Sarah, a lifeguard and award-winning swimmer, felt duty-bound to protect her fellow passengers as the situation became more treacherous. She felt frightened of the water for the first time in her life when she jumped in.
She remembers the baby being the only one on board who wasn’t afraid, along with a man who was probably pretending, making jokes to lighten the mood.
Sarah, Yusra and two other passengers painstakingly steered the boat by hand toward the Greek shore. Sarah begged her younger sister to get back in the boat, but Yusra wouldn’t hear of it. “If something happens to you, I’ll die,” she shouted at her.
They reached Lesvos in the dark, but that dangerous crossing from Turkey was just the start of their European troubles. They were barefoot and had to walk for hours to reach the island capital, Mytilene, and once there, no one would give them food or shelter, even though they had money. They slept in the courtyard of a small church for three nights.
Eventually the group reached Athens, where they met up with more smugglers. At every stop of their journey someone took advantage of their desperation, asking for money. Some were cruel, though not all. By foot and on buses and trains, they crossed five countries in 25 days to reach Germany. Sarah burst into tears when she saw a banner saying “Refugees welcome.”
“Why are you crying now?” wondered her fellow travelers, who had admired the young woman’s determination and spirit. “They’re happy tears. I feel like a human being again,” she replied.
Return to Lesvos
The two sisters soon settled and found a swimming pool where they could start training again, but an injury suffered during the crossing from Turkey put an end to Sarah’s chances of ever competing again.
She enrolled at a university and in her spare time volunteered at a refugee reception center in Berlin. “You can’t just get your papers and forget everything you’ve been through,” she would tell her friends.
While she was at the Rio Olympics with her sister, where Yusra competed with the refugee team, Sarah read a Facebook post by a volunteer on Lesvos saying how the sisters’ story had been such a source of inspiration.
That very same night she told her sister that she would be returning to Greece to provide other refugees with the kind of support they didn’t have at the start of their journey in Europe.
At first she came to Greece only every so often, but she moved to the island at the start of this year to work on a full-time basis after getting leave from university. Her tasks included meeting new arrivals on the shore, often having to help them get out of the water, and translating for them.
On August 21, Sarah was accompanied to the airport by her two best friends on Lesvos, Claudia and Alex. All three were tired from Sarah’s send-off party the night before and the friends were trying to cheer each other up.
Sarah was walking to the boarding gate with her suitcase in one hand and a pet carrier with her cat in the other when she was arrested by five men in civilian clothes.
“Sarah understands that she needs to be patient,” friends of the young woman told Kathimerini recently. “It’s not always easy because something that should have theoretically been cleared up immediately has already dragged on for more than two months. At least she is being treated well,” they added.
They feel that the case has to do with recent efforts to criminalize volunteerism on the islands, with NGOs and volunteers having been accused by some of facilitating or assisting organized refugee trafficking rings. They claim that while working for the NGO, Sarah was systematically facilitating the illegal entrance of foreigners without notifying the coast guard.
“Sarah knows that she hasn’t done anything illegal, so she is calm,” her friends said. A few days ago Sarah wrote to her friends on Lesvos: “You should be proud of yourselves, because without you, none of this strong solidarity would happen. (…) I grow stronger more and more, fully charged to fight. Nothing will stop me. Nothing will stop us,” she wrote.