Sarah Mardini, a Syrian hero on the bench of Greek justice

Sarah Mardini, known for inspiring the film “The Swimmers” and her sister, who retraced their journey between Syria and Germany, has been on trial since Tuesday on the Greek island of Lesbos. Pursued by the Greek state, he and 23 others working with NGOs helping migrants appeared for “espionage”. The trial “symbol” of “criminalization of solidarity” condemned Amnesty International.

“I just handed out towels and water”, explained Sarah Mardini through tears, during a TED conference held in London, in January 2020. The 29-year-old Syrian girl was tried on Tuesday 10 January along with 23 other aid workers. in Mytilene, Greece. Together with her sister, they inspired the film “The Swimmers” by Sally El Hosaini, available on Netflix since November, which traces their journey from Syria to Germany.

Since 2018, this group of people, working in an NGO helping refugees on the island of Lesbos, have been accused by the Greek authorities of “human trafficking”, “money laundering”, “fraud”, “espionage”, but also of belonging to a “criminal organization”. . The charge carries a sentence of up to 25 years in prison.

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“The charges examined this week relate only to misdemeanors, in particular espionage, which is punishable by up to eight years in prison. The most serious charges must still be the subject of other investigations”, complained France 24 Wies de Graeve, director of Amnesty Flemish Belgium, present at the trial.

“The Swimmers” from Syria to Germany

Before plunging into helping refugees, Sarah Mardini had time to reflect. Born on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, into a family of swimming champions, he spent the first years of his life between school and the swimming pool, where his father coached him alongside his younger sister, Yusra. But in 2011, civil war broke out. “Since then, every time I leave the house, I kiss my mom and dad with a lump in my stomach. I’m afraid this will be the last time I see them alive,” he told the conference.

Four years later, in 2015, like thousands of other Syrians, the two sisters decided to leave Syria for Europe. Sarah is 20 years old, Yusra is 17 years old. Plane ticket in hand, they fly to Turkey. “In Istanbul, we contacted smugglers who offered to take us to Greece,” he recalls. After ten hours of traveling by “nasty” bus, they arrived at a beach. Four days of non-stop waiting followed, with no water or food.

Until this morning in August 2015 when smugglers put them on a rubber boat. “There were twenty of us in the seven-seater boat,” he continued. “Almost fifteen minutes after leaving shore the boat started to take on water. Engine stalled.”

It was this precise moment that turned the Mardini brothers into the future heroes of Netflix films. “People started jumping in the water to lighten the canoe. And I thought, ‘I’m a professional swimmer and lifeguard. When I graduate, I promise no one will drown under my watch.'” Sarah jumped into the water, grabbed the rope and started swimming despite the strong wind and strong waves. A few minutes later, his sister joined him. After three and a half hours, the makeshift boat finally arrived at Lesbos Island. Everyone is safe and sound.

“From there, we join Athens, then Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria and finally Munich then Berlin. End of the road”, concluded the young woman.

One at the Olympics, the other at Greece

Upon their arrival in Germany, the courage of the two young women during the crossing to Greece was widely praised and their story received strong media coverage. But these passing celebrities are followed by new everyday life. Yusra Mardini quickly found the pool and joined the refugee swim team for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. She finished first in her series in the 100 meters butterfly – a great performance although it did not allow her to qualify for the semifinals. In 2020, he returned to the Tokyo Olympics without ever getting beyond the qualifying stage once again. If he continues to train in Berlin, the release of Swimmers in 2022 will make him want to explore new horizons. He has now moved to Los Angeles where he studies cinema.

Sarah Mardini, for her part, chose a completely different path. Wounded in the shoulder, he stayed away from swimming and decided to return to Greece. Her ambition: to help the many migrants who still arrive every day on the island of Lesbos. “I received a message, via Facebook, from a volunteer there. She explained to me that my story was being told in the refugee camp and that some little girls wanted to learn to swim ‘be like me’. was a click and a few days later, I was gone “, he said, during the TED conference.

There, the young Syrian joined the Greek NGO Emergency Response Center International (ERCI). “I serve as a translator for migrants, sometimes as first aid. I serve them drinking water and distribute blankets to them,” he said. It lasts two years. On 21 August 2018, he was arrested by Greek authorities at Lesbos airport, as he was preparing to return to Germany. At the same time, one of his friends and associates, Sean Binder, was also arrested.

Imprisoned for a hundred days

Sarah Mardini was placed in pre-trial detention on Lesbos then transferred to Athens. “It’s been a shock ever since,” he reacted to the BBC in 2018, denouncing the “horrific” conditions of detention. He was released after one hundred days of detention and 5,000 euro bail.

“Despite everything I’ve been through in my life, this period was the most difficult. The problem was not confinement but the frustration of not understanding why I was in prison. Sometimes I come to ask if I have really done something. wrong”, he testified, in London, two years later, announcing that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress and depression associated with this period. “No, my crime is helping migrants. Because for the Greek government, being there encourages them to come…”

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“But when I myself arrived as a refugee on Lesbos, I didn’t know that there would be volunteers there! Nobody put their lives in danger because humanitarian workers were waiting for them on the other side of the beach!”, he stressed.

A “suspended life”

Now, Sarah Mardini lives in Germany, with a ban on entering Greek territory. For four years, he has suffered, from a distance, the old justice. In 2021, the trial targeting him and 23 associates was adjourned for the first time after a court found him incompetent to try attorneys present among the defendants. Tuesday, January 10, reopen, postponed again to Friday.

“The lawyers for the defendants have demanded that the Court drop all charges in this first part due to procedural defects. They have very good evidence that the way this trial proceeded was unacceptable,” said Wies de Graeve, of Amnesty. The court will announce on Friday whether the trial will continue or not. In the case of a new adjournment, it will therefore take several months before the resumption of trials. Not to mention, other allegations against him are still under investigation.

“I want to get my life back (from before). For the past three years, I have no life (…) I exist through my body. But there is nothing else at the moment,” complained Sarah Mardini in an interview with the German daily Tagesspiegel at the end of 2021, stated that, faced with this legal battle, he left his studies. A feeling also shared by his colleague Sean Binder who mentioned in November 2021, to The Guardian, a “sword of Damocles” was blocking these future projects.

“Sarah’s case has become a symbol of the criminalization of solidarity implemented by Greece”, concluded Wies de Graeve. “Like Sarah, a hundred humanitarian workers have been threatened with similar accusations by the government. We must not forget them and continue to fight this trial, which is primarily political in nature.”

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