Sarah Mardini was born and raised in Damascus in Syria. From a young age, she and her sister Yrsa, were competitive swimmers, coached by their father and hoped to compete on an international level. When violence erupted in Damascus during the Syrian Civil War, the family lost their family home, and attempted to keep moving to avoid the ensuing violence. By 2015, fearing for their safety, the family decided to flee Syria and to build a new life in Europe. The family travelled to Turkey and boarded an inflatable boat to reach Greece. Disaster struck when the heavily overcrowded boat’s engine stopped working and started to sink. Many of those onboard were not able to swim. As lifeguards as well as professional swimmers, Sarah and her sister, Yrsa, along with two other men, jumped into the ocean and pushed the boat through the rough Aegean sea for the next 3.5 hours to safely in Lesbos. They saved 18 people onboard and were hailed as heroes by the international press.
Once in Greece, Sarah and her sister travelled the long and dangerous journey through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, and Austria, to finally arrive in Berlin, Germany, where they lived in a refugee camp for 8 months and successfully claimed asylum. However, Sarah was determined that no one else would experience what she had in her crossing in 2015. She wanted to help others. This led her to return to Lesbos a year later, to volunteer as a search and rescue swimmer and Arabic translator for a Greek non-profit, the Emergency Response Center International (ERCI). She went on to volunteer with ERCI for 2 years on and off, putting on hold her university studies at Bard College in Berlin.
In August 2018, Sarah was flying back to Berlin from Lesbos, when she was suddenly arrested by Greek police officers on charges of human smuggling, being part of a criminal organisation, espionage and money laundering. To Sarah’s horror, she spent 3 and a half months in jail before being released on bail in December 2018. Sarah’s arrest and incarceration was heavily criticised by the Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, other watchdog groups and the press. Sarah’s arrest amongst other humanitarian workers reflects a hardening attitude of European authorities towards humanitarian activities that assist refugees and migrants. Despite the case against Sarah still being open, Sarah has returned to Berlin and resumed her studies at Bard College.