Head of Communications Melissa Fleming also named the Netflix film the swimmers, “a wake-up call” and a “very welcome step” for everyone to show solidarity with refugees.
Although Yusra and Sara Mardini were forced to flee Syria’s civil war in 2015, the biographical drama, which Netflix dropped on Wednesday, makes it clear that they took their courage and humanitarian spirit with them when Yusra competed in two Olympics.
“At a very young age, they become heroes to millions, saving people who have been in peril at sea,” Ms. Fleming said at the screening, which took place at the UN Headquarters in New York. “And while they had to start over, they managed to achieve their dreams through perseverance and hard work.”
Illustrating the dignity, resilience and tremendous potential of these two young women, the swimmers gives all refugees a voice.
“It allows the audience not only to feel empathy for the displaced, but also to identify with them – to imagine they’re in their shoes,” the UN official said at a preview earlier this month.
While the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other parts of the organization have worked for decades to protect the lives and livelihoods of those fleeing war, violence and persecution, Ms Fleming acknowledged that the task “as displacement becomes increasingly challenging increasingly complex”.
A human lens
The true story begins when the teenage sisters who were competitive swimmers escaped the Syrian conflict.
It depicts their treacherous sea voyage to Europe when their boat’s engine died midway through the crossing and the sisters jumped into the water with two others and swam for several hours to get the sinking dinghy to safety, saving the lives of about 18 people on board.
It continues to accompany Yusra as she participates in the 2016 Rio Olympics. She later competed in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and became the youngest-ever UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador in 2017 at the age of 19.
who is a refugee
Like many people around the world, the word “refugee” meant little to Yusra – until she was forced to flee her homeland.
“When I was living in Syria … no one told me about it,” she said
“This film will bring the conversation to the table about what a refugee is, what we want to change.”
Education systems must … teach the stories of migrants and refugees – UNHCR Goodwill Ambassadors
Ruven Menikdiwela, Director of UNHCR NY, said the film is “a powerful reminder that while refugees are people who have fled conflict, war or persecution and are in need of support, they also bring their incredible talents and diverse skills to the communities bring in that they take in”.
Before one changes one’s view of refugees, she emphasized, one must first understand them.
“Education systems need to change… be more open, they need to tell the stories of migrants and refugees,” said the UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador.
Yusra was sure of that the swimmers would help educate people about the potential and value of all refugees and remind them that “we must treat everyone equally”.
Meanwhile, acclaimed Egyptian-Welsh director Sally El Hosaini hoped the film would change “weary stereotypes of both refugees and young Arab women” by claiming that they are just ordinary people “who have had to make unimaginable choices… on the Search for a safer, better life”.
commitment to refugees
Yusra’s amazing story is not just one in a million, but one in 103 million – the current number of forcibly displaced people worldwide.
Although not everyone can swim the 100m butterfly at the Olympics, Yusra continues to use her talent and success to speak on behalf of refugees and influence attitudes.
“The Olympics changed my attitude towards being a refugee,” she said.
“I went to 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 what matters most.”
“That’s just the beginning”
Beyond swimming, Yusra plans to continue as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador; establishment of a non-profit foundation for sport and education; continue their studies; and maybe start acting.
Despite being in the Hollywood spotlight, the young lawyer has not lost sight of her calling.
“A lot has to change for refugees,” she says. “This is not the end. This is just the beginning.”