UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador hopes the dramatic new film of her and her sister’s escape from conflict to new lives in Europe will challenge attitudes towards refugees
By UNHCR Staff
New Netflix film, The Swimmers, tells the remarkable tale of Yusra Mardini, a young Syrian refugee and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, who escaped conflict and went on to compete in two Olympics.
“This is a movie that any person in the world can relate to,” the 24-year-old said shortly before the film’s world premiere on Thursday at the prestigious opening night of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). “We want the movie to make a difference.”
Described as a “soaring epic”, anticipation has been building among audiences and critics since the release of the film’s dramatic teaser trailer last week.
Directed by acclaimed Egyptian-Welsh filmmaker Sally El Hosaini of My Brother the Devil, the film stars Lebanese actors and real-life sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa, as Yusra and her older sibling Sara.
It tells the story of their childhood in Damascus, their focus on swimming from a young age, and their dramatic journey to Europe in 2015 that saw them help save the lives of fellow refugees by jumping into the water and steering their stricken dinghy to shore through the Aegean Sea’s dark waters.
Ahead of stepping out on the red carpet in Toronto, Mardini’s excitement for the film’s possibilities was palpable.
“We told them the whole story. We wanted it to be the actual story, the real story,” she says, adding that the filmmakers visited the family in Germany where they now live, as well as the Greek refugee camps where they had first stayed. “They really invested a lot of time and energy into this, and we did not doubt for a second that they would do a great job.”
While the public will have to wait until 23 November for the film’s general release, Mardini has already seen it twice and says it is impossible for her to pick the best moments. “Honestly, the whole movie is my favourite scene!” she says.
However, being based on the true story of Yusra and Sara’s escape from conflict, and the beginning of their new lives as refugees, it is not always an easy film for her – or anyone else – to watch. “I was crying every two minutes,” Yusra says.
She hopes it will prove much more than simple entertainment. “This movie is going to put the conversation on the table of what a refugee is, of what we want to change,” says Yusra.
El Hosaini, the director, echoes this ambition. “My greatest hope for the film is that it subverts the tired stereotypes of both refugees and young Arab women.
“I want the film to remind us that refugees are regular people with full, regular lives, with hopes and dreams. Ordinary people who’ve had to make unimaginable choices, leaving their homes and risking everything in search of a safer, better life.”
Since becoming the youngest ever UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador in 2017, and competing as a swimmer in both the Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Yusra has emerged as a leading voice for refugees, one that The Swimmers will amplify still further.
Like many around the world, the term ‘refugee’ meant little to Yusra until she was forced to flee her home. “When I was living in Syria, I did not even think of what a refugee is. No one educated me about it,” she says.
To change perceptions of refugees, understanding must come first, she says. “The education systems have to change: they have to be more open, they have to teach the stories of migrants and refugees,” says Yusra, who hopes sharing her story far and wide, through her 2018 memoir Butterfly and now The Swimmers, will help educate people about the potential, and the value, that all refugees have. “We have to treat everyone the same,” she says.
“A lot still has to change for refugees.”
Yusra’s astonishing story is not just one in a million, it is one in 100 million, which is the current number of forcibly displaced people globally. Of course, not everyone can swim the 100-metre butterfly at the Olympics, but Yusra’s talent and success drives her commitment to speaking for refugees and influencing attitudes.
“The Olympic Games changed the way I think about being a refugee. I walked into the stadium in Rio and I realised that I can inspire so many people. I realised that ‘refugee’ is just a word, and what you would do with it is the most important thing.”
Beyond her swimming, Yusra’s plans for the future include her continuing role as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, establishing a charitable foundation to focus on sports and education, undertaking her own further studies, and perhaps even acting.
Despite being in the Hollywood spotlight, Yusra has not lost sight of her calling. “A lot still has to change for refugees,” she says. “This is not the end. This is just the beginning.”
Originally published by UNHCR on 9 September 2022.