News, Culture & Society

Syrian Olympian says refugees are not in the UK for a ‘luxury life’

A Syrian Olympic swimmer whose incredible story is being told in an upcoming Neflix film has spoken out about discrimination against refugees.

Yusra Mardini, 24, told Lorraine that some westerners seem to think refugees come to the UK to take their work.

The refugee and now Olympic swimmer, 24, said ‘if you are good at your job no one steals it from you’ on the ITV daytime show on Thursday. 

She spoke candidly on the show about the upcoming Netflix film The Swimmers, which tells the real-life story of Yusra and her sister Sara Mardini who were forced to flee war-torn Syria.

Yusra Mardini, 24, said ‘if you are good at your job no one steals it from you’ on the ITV daytime show on Thursday

Opening up about her hopes on Lorraine she said that the series will make refugees 'more humane'

Opening up about her hopes on Lorraine she said that the series will make refugees ‘more humane’

Opening up about her hoept that the film will help people take a ‘more humane’ view of refugees,.

Yusra said: ‘The UK was built by refugees so there are so many people who can relate to this story. If not them, then their parents.

‘I just want people to understand that there are millions of people going through that.

‘We do not choose to leave home. We leave home because we are escaping war and violence, not because of the luxury life.

‘Lots of people here in the western world are like “Yeah, they are stealing our money and jobs” and I always say that if you are good at your job no one steals it from you.’

Yusra during a training session at the Wasserfreunde Spandau in training pool Olympiapark Berlin in 2016

Yusra during a training session at the Wasserfreunde Spandau in training pool Olympiapark Berlin in 2016 

She refugees 'do not choose to leave home' saying they 'leave home because we are escaping war and violence'

She refugees ‘do not choose to leave home’ saying they ‘leave home because we are escaping war and violence’

She went onto explain that she used to be 'ashamed' to be called a refugee but that has now changed

She went onto explain that she used to be ‘ashamed’ to be called a refugee but that has now changed

She went onto explain that she used to be ‘ashamed’ to be called a refugee but that has now changed. 

Yusra said: ‘Obviously when I was younger I wasn’t really educated about what a refugee is and I was very far away from the whole topic. But when I became one I felt ashamed, and you can see in the movie I said “I am not a refugee I have a home”.

‘That was one thing that I struggled with, I was 17 at the time and I had to abandon everything. Me and my sister we even had to leave my mum and dad.

‘That was really hard when we left to Germany. We thought it would be a year or two and then we would go home, so thats why it was very hard for me.’

She continued: ‘When I qualified for the refugee Olympic team I did not want people to feel pity for me, I did not want people to think I didn’t deserve my spot on the team.’ 

Netflix's upcoming movie The Swimmers (pictured) tells the story of the Mardini sisters, starting as they fled the civil war in Syria in 2015

Netflix’s upcoming movie The Swimmers (pictured) tells the story of the Mardini sisters, starting as they fled the civil war in Syria in 2015

Sisters Yusra Mardini and Sara Mardini (pictured at the Bambi Awards 2016 in Berlin), who swam alongside d a dinghy filled with refugees from Turkey to Greece, have had their story immortalised in an upcoming Netflix film

Sisters Yusra (left) and Sara Mardini (pictured at the Bambi Awards 2016 in Berlin), who swam alongside d a dinghy filled with refugees from Turkey to Greece, have had their story immortalised in an upcoming Netflix film 

Yusra and her sister Sara, 26,  left their home in Damascus in August 2015, four years after the conflict broke out in March 2011, in a bid to reach Europe. They planned to fly to Istanbul, before travelling to Greece via sea, then on land to Germany.   

But the journey nearly ended in tragedy when the motor on the dinghy they took across the Aegean Sea stalled, leaving its 18 occupants in peril.

The sisters realised that the boat, which was designed to carry only seven people, couldn’t take the weight of everyone onboard, and so they jumped into the icy waters.  

They then spent three hours swimming alongside the dinghy across the water from Turkey to Greece. Their daring actions were made possible thanks to the lifelong swimming training their father Ezzat had provided.

Yusra Mardini went onto become one of 42 athletes on the newly formed refugee team, taking part in the 100m butterfly race at Rio 2016 (pictured)

Yusra Mardini went onto become one of 42 athletes on the newly formed refugee team, taking part in the 100m butterfly race at Rio 2016 (pictured)

Yusra Mardini (pictured at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games) speaks with her German coach Sven Spannekrebs

Yusra Mardini (pictured at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games) speaks with her German coach Sven Spannekrebs

Miraculously, the boat reached the island of Lesbos, and everyone onboard survived.

Speaking to MailOnline shortly afterwards, Yusra said: ‘We just had to do it. The boat was built for seven or eight but carried 20 people.  

‘Sara and I went into the water with another guy who could swim. We pushed for three hours, the worst being the cold and the dark.’

She continued: ‘It would have been shameful if the people on our boat had drowned.

‘There were people who didn’t know how to swim. I wasn’t going to sit there and complain that I would drown. If I was going to drown, at least I’d drown proud of myself and my sister.’  

Sara added: ‘It was scary actually for the other people who were with us in the boat, but not for me.

Actors Manal Issa and Matthias Schweighofer (pictured) playing Yusra Mardini and Sven Spannekrebs in Netflix's The Swimmers

Actors Manal Issa and Matthias Schweighofer (pictured) playing Yusra Mardini and Sven Spannekrebs in Netflix’s The Swimmers

‘I just wanted to get everyone safely to the island. Which we did, thank God.’

The girls, freezing and exhausted, kicked so hard their shoes came off – but their efforts were worthwhile.

Three hours later, they washed up on the Greek island of Lesbos: everyone had survived. 

They had stayed in Damascus, the Syrian capital, throughout the first years of the civil war, trying to ignore the bombs destroying the city around them.

In 2012, Yusra she even represented her country at the World Championships in Turkey.

But as conditions got worse, her swimming began to take a back seat.

‘The war was hard; sometimes we couldn’t train because of the war,’ Yusra explained.

‘Or sometimes you had training but there was a bomb in the swimming pool.’

Real life sisters Manal and Nathalie Issa (pictured) portray sisters Sara and Yusra Mardini in the film

Real life sisters Manal and Nathalie Issa (pictured) portray sisters Sara and Yusra Mardini in the film

Then, finally, in August the family sat down together and made a decision: it was time to leave.  

‘Our family discussed that our area was becoming destroyed more and more,’ she told MailOnline. ‘We had shooting and air raids, our home wasn’t safe place anymore.’

They travelled first to Lebanon and then Turkey, where they, like many others desperate refugees, boarded a dinghy in the hope of reaching Greece.

And when the boat engine failed, Yusra knew everyone on board would die unless she took action. 

For the sisters, the moment they washed up on that beach was the end of five years of terror. 

Yusra Mardini (pictured while practicing at the Olympic swimming venue in Brazil in 2016) said it would have been 'shameful' if any of the refugees on the dinghy she was travelling on would have drowned

Yusra Mardini (pictured while practicing at the Olympic swimming venue in Brazil in 2016) said it would have been ‘shameful’ if any of the refugees on the dinghy she was travelling on would have drowned

The film shows the sisters' harrowing journey by dinghy across the Aegean Sea, when they were forced to jump out of the boat, and spend three hours in the icy water

The film shows the sisters’ harrowing journey by dinghy across the Aegean Sea, when they were forced to jump out of the boat, and spend three hours in the icy water

Finally, after moving through the camps of Lebanon and across the wide expanses of Europe, the sisters found safety in Germany. 

Once there, they were able to make contact with a swimming pool near the refugee centre in which they were living, where they started training with a local coach Sven Spannekrebs.  

Their goal was to train, with a view to competing in the 2020 Olympic games.

However, that year, for the first time in its history, the International Olympic Committee announced that the nations competing in Rio would be joined by a team of refugees, made up of athletes who would otherwise find themselves stateless and excluded. 

Yusra became one of the 42 athletes representing the team, swimming in the 100m butterfly, and winning one of the heats.

Speaking about the squad, Yusra told MailOnline: ‘I want to represent all refugees because I want to show everyone that after the pain, after the storm, come calm days. I want to inspire them to do something good in their lives.’  

Now Netflix has immortalised their story in its upcoming film The Swimmers, which is directed by Bafta winner Sally El Hosaini, and executive produced by Stephen Daldry. 

The cast includes real life sisters Manal and Nathalie Issa as Sara and Yusra Mardini. 

According to the synopsis: ‘From war-torn Syria to the 2016 Rio Olympics, two young sisters embark on a risky voyage, putting their hearts and their swimming skills to heroic use.’ 

After premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film is now one of Netflix’s biggest Oscar hopefuls.

The Swimmers will be available to stream on Netflix in the UK from November 23  

 

 

 

 

***
Read more at DailyMail.co.uk