Swimming across the Aegean Sea—an analysis of The Swimmers
In an honest display of the realities of refugee life, the film tells a story that many need to hear.

Trigger warning: The film contains detailed scenes of violence and sexual assault
Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers from The Swimmers

Heavy currents strike against a patched raft, turning a 90-minute trip between Ayvalik, Turkey and Lesbos, Greece into hours of travel. The sun has set, and the moonlight pierces the pitch-black waters. From the raft we hear echoes of the wails of a newborn, the nervous praying of the passengers, and the crashes of rapid waters sinking the boat. Two sisters, Yusra and Sarah Mardini, jump off the boat and choose to swim alongside the raft. Desperate for air, they sacrifice their lives to save the other refugees from sinking in the Aegean Sea. 

This story represents the thousands of Syrian refugees who left Syria to seek sanctuary in countries like Germany, the United Kingdom, and Canada. The Swimmers, directed by Sally El Hosaini, is based on the true story of Olympian Yusra Mardini (Nathalie Issa) and human rights activist Sarah Mardini (Manal Issa). The Mardini sisters are played by two real-life sisters—their relationship made evident through their on-screen chemistry. The plot evokes a complex array of emotions—from the moment Yusra is shown swimming with her father, to the bomb that shatters the roof of the swimming arena, to the sisters jumping out of the raft. As the sisters tread on foot from Greece to Germany, frequently entrapped in the back of suffocating trucks and in view of predatory eyes, viewers begin to understand the struggles and sacrifices that come with seeking a new home in a new country. 

I was so mesmerized by the detail in the scenes and cinematography that I watched the film twice. Along with the beautifully crafted moments of Yusra and Sarah swimming for hope, elements of Middle Eastern culture stood out to me. Throughout a scene in Damascus, Syria, I noticed the Arabic “Happy Birthday” song and “Nido”—powdered milk—resting atop a fridge. Cousins, grandparents, and children gathered to celebrate the birthday on screen. Most importantly, the implementation of famous Arab actors such as Kinda Alloush—who plays the mother—and Ahmed Malik—who plays cousin Nizar—placed importance on Arab culture. The film switched between Arabic and English, making it enjoyable to speakers of both languages alike. It is a work of art to be enjoyed by masses. 

When I watched Yusra gasping for air while swimming to the Greek shores, I felt terrified, as if I was there with her, drowning. The scene showed most refugees leaving at night to avoid coastguards. They were obliged to destroy their boat so that authorities could not send them back on it. Extending beyond the Syrian ethnicity, refugees of Iraqi, Eritrean, and Afghan backgrounds were present. The film wonderfully showed the collective struggle, as refugees of all cultures, religions, and ethnicities huddle closely on their journeys. Constantly being promised sanctuary, these refugees are frequently betrayed. 

The Swimmers portrays the realities of millions who have been displaced. Yusra’s ambition to swim for the Olympics adds uniqueness to the plot, as she is one of the few characters to pursue their passion upon arrival to a new country. Throughout the film, she trains frequently, determined to achieve her and her father’s dreams of being a professional swimmer. After months of heartache and longing for her parents and younger sister back in Damascus, Yusra demands attention from German swimming coach Sven Spannekrebs (Matthias Schweighöfer). With rigorous training, Yusra is added to the IOC Refugee Olympic Team and competes in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Yusra swam on the same team in the 2020 Tokyo games. 

Yusra Mardini has since quit professional swimming, choosing to spend time with the rest of her family that made it to Berlin while also pursuing school and activism. Sarah Mardini has been accused of smuggling and fraud after attempting to assist refugees cross the Aegean Sea. If convicted, she faces 20 years in prison—an act of cruelty that presses against victims of war for the benefit of the country. 

The Swimmers is a vivid representation of war, losing loved ones, and searching for identity. Countries throughout the world consistently seek relief from growing tensions that have destroyed their nations. Even within our own communities, we know people whose parents fled their homes for a better life. Some of us have friends who have recently immigrated to Canada, and some of us have just come ourselves, sharing similar stories to the Mardini sisters who left Syria in 2015. 

Throughout the film, I consistently remembered the image of a young body, lying on the shore, drowned after attempting to reach land. Alan Kurdi was a two-year-old boy, unaware of his purpose on the boat, terrified in his last moments shrouded by darkness. This little boy had no opportunity to feel the warm sand underneath his feet or to see his parents’ faces fill with joy knowing they had finally arrived in Europe. Alan Kurdi is one of many. Yusra and Sarah Mardini are some of many. The Swimmers leaves us with two different endings from the same origin story.

Refugees and immigrants struggle beyond their old homes. They find difficulty in establishing a source of income, in being accepted by their neighbours, and in finding purpose in this new land. They forever miss the home of their ancestors. The immigrant struggle follows them as they dig their roots into new soil, building their livelihoods from scratch. 

Changing Leaves Columnist (Volume 49); Managing Editor (May–November, Volume 49) — Aia is a fourth-year student studying Psychology and completing a double minor in French and Philosophy. She became a Staff Writer for The Medium in the 2021-2022 publishing year and was determined the team couldn’t get rid of her so soon. In her spare time, she can be found café hopping in the hopes to find the best iced chai in the GTA, writing her weirdly complex thoughts down in her notes app, or taking a million pictures a day of her friends. Aia hopes that students find The Medium and feel the sense of belonging she has felt. You can connect with Aia on Linkedin.


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