Hour of freedom arrives for NGO volunteers

Hour of freedom arrives for NGO volunteers

Sarah Mardini had notched up exactly three-and-a-half months in jail when she was released from the Greek capital’s Korydallos Prison last week. She was hit by a sudden realization that same morning: Three-and-a-half was also the number of hours she and her sister had to swim to bring their fellow passengers to safety after their boat ran into trouble during the crossing from Turkey to the eastern Aegean island of Lesvos in summer 2015. The 23-year-old Syrian doesn’t hold much stock in such symbolism, but the coincidence still made an impression. There were certainly days that were tough during those three-and-a-half months in prison, but keeping a positive mind-set helped her, as it has done during even rougher ordeals. “Prison was little bit like an extended vacation, only behind locked doors,” she told Kathimerini shortly after being granted release from pretrial custody.

Mardini is among four former members of Emergency Response Center International (ERCI) who were arrested on Lesvos in August on charges of migrant smuggling and other alleged crimes connected to their work with the nongovernmental organization.

In prison Mardini slept a lot, read books and did arts and crafts. She even managed to create a small community around her and mobilized her fellow inmates as well as some guards to petition for improvements to holding conditions. Being the youngest in her cellblock, she enjoyed a certain amount of indulgence. When she learned that she was being released, one inmate who claimed to be a fortune-teller assured her that the cards said everything would work out, and two other women gave her their prayer ropes. Mardini gave them almost every personal item she owned, even a pair of earrings her mother had brought as present during her last prison visit.

When her mother learned about this later, she laughed and gently scolded her daughter: “That’s what you always do!” Mardini had even been planning to donate the 10,000-dollar prize she and her sister Yusra were awarded from MIT University earlier this month, but was dissuaded by her family: “You have a lot of expenses and no money; you’ll need it,” they insisted.

Last Wednesday, everything was theoretically ready for Mardini’s release around lunchtime. Her bail of 5,000 euros had been scraped together and the prosecutor had sent all the relevant papers. She had packed up her things – three large bags mostly containing books – but not the book she was currently reading, a Malcolm X biography, which she wanted to keep handy. She and the lawyer from Solidarity Now, the NGO that has been helping with her case from the very start, had agreed to read it at the same time and then discuss it. Mardini had marked several parts that she wanted to talk about – it was probably an effort to get her mind off the stress.

Her friend Sean Binder, another ERCI volunteer facing charges, and ERCI’s field director Nassos Karakitsos, a former Greek navy officer, had already been released. The only thing Mardini wanted upon her release was to get on a plane to Lesvos and have a reunion. “First, though, we’ll make a stop at a store so I can buy some clothes,” she laughed as she told her lawyers. She was anxious to wear something she had chosen herself after months in strange clothing.

But the clock was ticking and she still hadn’t been allowed to leave. She started worrying that something had gone wrong. Even the guards were concerned. “When you know you’re getting out, every extra hour seems like an eternity,” one of the prison workers told Kathimerini. By the time she was eventually released, at 9.30 p.m., Mardini was exhausted and seemed upset.

In the car, she told her lawyer the bad news she had just learned: “I’m not allowed to travel to Lesvos until 2025.”

Mardini first arrived on the Aegean island in 2015 after the treacherous crossing from Turkey and chose to return later as a volunteer to help other refugees trying to reach Europe. It is also where she was arrested last August, accused of belonging to a criminal migrant-smuggling racket. Despite these ordeals, she regards Lesvos as her home and was devastated by the prospect of not being able to go back. “Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out,” her lawyers said.

After her release Mardini and her lawyers joined her mother – who had just flown in from Berlin – and a few friends at an Athens restaurant, but the young woman couldn’t eat. “What’s wrong? Do you already miss prison food?” they teased her. They sat up into the night telling stories. They all smiled when they realized that Wednesday, December 5, was World Volunteer Day – another symbolic coincidence.

Later, when Mardini switched on her cell phone, she saw that she had received thousands of messages of support from friends as well as strangers in those three-and-a-half months. She called her family, her former swimming coach – who has stood by her side like a brother – and the director of Bard College Berlin, where she had enrolled to study for a degree in economics and social sciences. “Please take a hot bath and get some rest,” he advised her.

The terms of Mardini’s release do not include a ban on leaving the country, so she was to return to Berlin, where she will take up her studies again. As anxious as she is to get on with her life, she knows that nothing is finished yet as her case is not closed. She still faces charges and the possibility of more prison time.

The morning after her release she visited the office of another one of her lawyers, Zacharias Kesses, to discuss strategy. They were interrupted by the doorbell. It was Mardini’s best friend, a fellow volunteer from Lesvos, who had caught a morning flight to Athens just to see her. Mardini couldn’t go to Lesvos but there was nothing stopping Lesvos from coming to her. The conversation about her case just had to wait.

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