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HomeUnited NationsNetflix biodrama draws attention to real-life refugee-turned-Olympian 

Netflix biodrama draws attention to real-life refugee-turned-Olympian 

Although Yusra and Sara Mardini were forced to flee Syria’s civil war in 2015, the biographical drama, which Netflix dropped on Wednesday, makes clear that they took their bravery and humanitarian spirit with them as Yusra went on to compete in two Olympic games. While not everyone can swim the 100-metre butterfly at the Olympics, Yusra continues to use her talent and success in speaking for refugees and influencing attitudes.  Beyond swimming, Yusra’s plans to continue as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador; establish a charitable foundation on sports and education; further her studies; and perhaps, take up acting. 

Shared humanity 

Yusra’s astonishing story is not just one in a million, but one in 103 million – the current number of forcibly displaced people globally.   Ruven Menikdiwela (UNHCR), Sally El Hosaini (Director and Writer), Yusra Mardini (UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador), Matthias Schweighöfer (Actor), and Racheline Benveniste (Netflix), stand outside of the UN ECOSOC Chamber for a special pre-screening of Netflix film “The Swimmers”. “It allows the audience not only to feel compassion for those forcibly displaced but identify with them – imagine they’re in their shoes,” the UN official said at a preview screening earlier this month.  

A human lens 

Education systems have to…teach the stories of migrants and refugees – UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador [embedded content]
In illustrating the dignity, resilience, and enormous potential of these two young women, The Swimmers gives voice to all refugees.  

Who is a refugee  

“Education systems have to change…be more open, they have to teach the stories of migrants and refugees,” the UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador explained.  While the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and other parts of the Organization have for worked for decades to protect the lives and livelihoods of those forced to flee war, violence and persecution, Ms. Fleming acknowledged that the task is becoming “increasingly challenging as displacement is getting more and more complex”.   “The Olympic Games changed the way I think about being a refugee,” she said.  

Meanwhile, acclaimed Egyptian-Welsh director Sally El Hosaini hoped that the film alters “tired stereotypes of both refugees and young Arab women,” asserting that they are just regular people “who’ve had to make unimaginable choices…in search of a safer, better life”. 

It shows their treacherous sea journey to Europe, when the engine on their boat cuts out mid-crossing and the sisters jumped into the water with two others and, swimming for several hours, guided the sinking dingy to safety, saving the lives of some 18 people onboard.  

Shifting perceptions  

“At a very young age, they become heroes for millions, saving people who were in peril at sea,” explained Ms. Fleming at the screening, held at UN Headquarters in New York. “And while they had to re-start from scratch, they managed to achieve their dreams through persistence and hard work”.   “This movie is going to put the conversation on the table of what a refugee is, of what we want to change”.  Communications chief Melissa Fleming also called the Netflix film The Swimmers, “a wakeup call” and a “hugely welcome step” for everyone to stand in solidarity with refugees.  Despite being in the Hollywood spotlight, the young advocate has not lost sight of her calling.  

Ruven Menikdiwela (UNHCR), Sally El Hosaini (Director and Writer), Yusra Mardini (UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador), Matthias Schweighöfer (Actor), and Racheline Benveniste (Netflix), stand outside of the UN ECOSOC Chamber for a special pre-screening of Netflix…
The Swimmers 2022 Trailer Netflix YouTube | Biography Drama Sport Movie

It continues to follow Yusra as she competes in  the Rio 2016 Olympics. She would go on to compete in the  Tokyo 2020 Olympics, and in 2017, at age 19, became the youngest ever UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador. 

Advocating for refugees  

“I walked into the stadium in Rio, and I realized that I can inspire so many people. I realized that ‘refugee’ is just a word, and what you do with it is the most important thing.”  UNHCR NY Director Ruven Menikdiwela said, the film stands as “a powerful reminder that while refugees are individuals who have fled from conflict, war or persecution and need support, they also bring with them their incredible talents and diverse skills to the communities that welcome them”.  “When I was living in Syria…no one educated me about it,” she said Before altering the way people view refugees, she emphasized that they must first understand them. 

‘This is only the beginning’ 

The true story begins with the teenage sisters, who were competitive swimmers, escaping the Syrian conflict.  Like many around the world, the word ‘refugee’ meant little to Yusra – until she was forced to flee her home.   Yusra was confident that The Swimmers would help educate people on the potential and value of all refugees, reminding that “we have to treat everyone the same”. 

“A lot still has to change for refugees,” she says. “This is not the end. This is just the beginning.” © UNHCR/Jasper Nolos

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