From Syria to the Olympics: A Tale of Two Sisters Swimming for their Lives

Germany - Sara and Yusra, two sisters from Syria, left their country in November 2015. Sara, the youngest, speaks about their journey and how strong and invincible they thought they were before that night.

“We knew we could reach Greece,” says Sara. “My sister and I were not afraid of dying. We were professional swimmers back in Syria.”

But when they saw the boat in Turkey, their confidence suddenly vanished. “Before you go on the boat, people tell you that you are going to die. So the first thing you think about when you get on that boat is death. You don't think of anything else.”

So as the two sisters and 20 other people boarded the boat, they feared the worst. “I told my sister that if the boat capsized, we shouldn’t try to help others but just swim away together and save ourselves. We can’t help everybody, there are too many people.”

“However, when the engine stopped and the boat started deflating and taking in water, I felt that I could not let the other people drown and only save my own life. It wouldn't be fair,” she says.

“I thought it was my duty to jump in the water. And if I die and those 20 people are still alive, that’s great. When I die people would remember me for this. But if I leave them I would feel bad with myself for the rest of my life.”

When a friend of their father who was traveling with them jumped into the water, Sara forgot about her fears and jumped in after him despite him warning her to get back on the boat.

“We needed to have less weight on the boat and nobody else besides us could swim, so we had to get off the boat to save the others. When I first got into the water my whole body was shaking like it does just before competition, when you know that all the other swimmers are so strong.”

She recalls, “I couldn’t hear my mind, I just ignored it. I tried focusing on that moment, I didn't want to think about anything else.”

Her father’s friend somehow managed to cut off the legs of her trousers which were weighing her down. She was getting exhausted and fought hard to stay awake.

“When I had been in the water for two hours, I knew that if I was not paying attention I would fall asleep and drown. It was getting dark and cold, the wind was blowing and I was freezing. I could not open my eyes anymore, they were full of salt water.” 

The boat eventually arrived on a small island in Greece in the middle of the night. One man who was traveling with his baby came to her and kissed her feet. Others were frantically trying to get a signal on their phones to contact their beloved ones and inform them that they had made it.

"When I finally got a phone signal I was afraid to call my mom. I had lost my voice almost completely and I knew she would be worried. I couldn’t send her a photo of myself either, I looked like I had been beaten up. I could hardly open my eyes from all the salt and my face was covered in bruises. I spoke to my dad. He was so proud of me. He said 'You are my man'. He didn’t say 'You are my girl.' I felt that I had really achieved something big.”

Sara confides that she had always imagined that in such a situation she would only try to save her life.

“But at that very moment I felt that life was bigger than me alone. All the people on that boat were part of me.”

Sara’s sister Yusra, part of the first ever Refugee Olympic Team, will be competing at the Rio Olympics, which begin on Friday 5 August. Read Yusra’s story here.

Yusra (left) and her sister Sara (Courtesy of Sara)