“I started swimming when I was three years old. I didn’t love it when I was young, but as I grew up, it became my biggest passion. My dad was my coach, and we always had this dream of going to the Olympics. But, apart from that, I had a normal life in Damascus: I went to school, to swimming and then I’d spend weekends with my friends and family. It felt like any other childhood.
“Then the war broke out when I was 13, and from that moment on, everything got really hard. We lived in the conflict for five years; we lost our house, most of our things, and people we knew. It wasn’t safe anymore. In 2015, when I was 17, my older sister Sara and I decided we needed to leave Syria. We talked to my parents and, at first, they were against it, but after we found out that two of our cousins were going to travel to Europe, our dad relented and allowed us to go, too.
“It took 25 days to get from Damascus to Germany. We crossed by plane from Syria to Beirut, and then on to Turkey, where we boarded a boat to Greece. The journey should have taken 45 minutes, we were told, but the boat was broken and overcrowded. Most people didn’t know how to swim. As you see in one of the most terrifying scenes from The Swimmers – the movie from Netflix and Working Title based on the journey we took from our home, becoming refugees and culminating at the Olympic Games – Sara and I, along with a few others, had to jump into the sea to reduce the weight of the boat. We swam for three and a half hours to get to shore.
“After that, we took buses, trains, cars and traveled by foot to Hungary and, finally, to Germany. When we arrived, there was so much waiting in line, queuing for days on end and for hours at a time as we tried to navigate this new life and this status of becoming refugees. Through the whole awful experience, I was determined to keep up my passion for swimming and not let go of my vision of getting to the Olympics. The pool has been my safe place since I was a child – when I was growing up, I spent more time there than in my own home sometimes. I was taught by my dad that when I enter the pool, I should leave everything I’m thinking about behind and focus on my goals and dreams, and when I got to Germany, swimming helped me feel at home again, because it was the only familiar thing in my life. There is no language in swimming, but soon, I met amazing people. I feel so lucky for the community I have found.
When I participated with the Refugee Olympic team, I realized that I was representing millions of people around the world. It was a turning point in feeling proud of who I am”
“When I had started training again in Germany, the first ever Refugee team was created for the Rio Olympics in 2016. I struggled in the beginning at the thought of not competing for my country, and with being labeled a refugee; it took a while for me to be OK with it. But when I participated with the Refugee Olympic team, I realized that I was representing millions of people around the world. It was a turning point in feeling proud of who I am, and I wanted to start using my voice and the platform I now have.
“I owe so much of this realization to Sara and my parents. I get my determination and dedication from them, from watching them work every day of their lives for us. I am stubborn and very competitive – even when I play Monopoly. Sara and I have always pushed and supported each other. We felt quite distant for a while, because of the different paths we have now taken in life, but watching the movie of our sisterhood play out on screen has brought us closer again. Even when we are apart physically, we know that, whatever happens, we are there for each other.
After being a very shy kid, it took me a while to realize the power I have and the importance of using it. I’m in a position where I can help others; where people will listen to my story”
“I became a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador when I was 19, and I’m now starting a foundation that will be focused on helping young refugees participate in education and sport, two areas I feel I can really help with while I also attend film school in LA. I want to provide opportunities, and I am in a place where I can do that. After being a very shy kid, it took me a while to realize the power I have and the importance of using it. I’m in a position where I can help others; where people will listen to my story.
“But, as Sally El Hosaini, The Swimmers’ director, kept reminding us all, ours is only a tiny proportion of the outcomes for refugees. It is a positive story, of survival and success – and that is so often not the case. Ultimately, I hope to change something bigger than just telling my own story.”
The Swimmers is in select cinemas now and on Netflix from November 23