About Refugees, By Refugees

Sarah Mardini

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Photo and interview by:




Esra Gültekin

My dream was to get an Olympic gold medal in swimming and make everyone stand up for my Syrian anthem,” says Sarah Mardini (25) from her home in Berlin. After her house was lost in the war in Syria, her family decided it was time to leave. Reaching Europe meant crossing from Turkey to Greece by sea. 15 minutes into the journey, the engine cut out. Sarah and her sister entered the water and started pushing the boat. No longer were they swimming for medals – they were swimming for their lives. “It was scary… even if you’re professional swimmer,” she says. “I just didn’t want to die.” After three and a half hours they delivered the boat, and all in it, safely to Greece. Five years later, therapy helps Sarah process all she’s been through. There’s trauma, but also positive outcomes: “because of what happened five years ago. I am who I am today.” She says, “I am stronger, braver.” She adds, “after this journey, I think me and my sister can go to the moon and come back, and I know we can do it.”

Trigger Warning:

full interview

And last question.

From current situation and what kind of housing do you live in?
What kind of?

What kind of housing do you I live in?
I live in a WG

And could you please describe it?
I don’t know why I have to describe it.

You don’t. I mean, I mean, when you say WG, you know, people don’t know WG.
Oh, WG is basically a shared flat with other people. You have your own room and you just pay rent and you share like with other people whose like could be anyone. So it’s more like a hotel, but it’s a house. So but you share like kitchen and share bathroom with others. And yeah, sometimes you live with your friends and friends who you want to live with.

OK, and how do you spend your time here?
Um, so pre-covid when life was normal, I am out on the university when I was studying there or I go to work. Um, and now I just sit here twenty hours and do everything on my desk.

And what are some of the things that bring you joy?
Um, when I grow personally day by day and acknowledge my mistakes and learn from them, and when I see that people are slowly, slowly, sometimes taking the lead of what I do and they do, the same things are also happy because I do my work and I do not ask anyone to like to do the same or to copy me, but they want to see someone is doing the same. That’s mean that you are actually doing something good. So that’s what’s bringing me happiness and joy. 

And how has life been since you arrived in Europe and what’s been good about being here? What’s been difficult?
Oh, um, life been fine, I think since I got here, it’s not that special and it’s not that different than being home. Of course, the good thing about being here, there’s no war. So there’s safety. And I don’t call it one of the negative things, but I think one of the struggles is not able to speak the language and not able, I just didn’t learn it yet. But I don’t know. I don’t think there is any struggles of being here. I think just to be away from your culture, away from the people you love, I mean, those hard things. But apart from that, I think everything fine now.

And could you describe this feeling how living here has made you feel?
Um, I’m living here? It’s it’s different from living at home, because here you have to rely on yourself and do your own, like jobs and homework and find your home. And my family lives here. But still, I do my things by myself because it’s not like back home. It’s not as family together. You have to do that. It’s more as Sarah, as more as Esra is, more as whoever is doing their work alone. So that’s hard because we don’t know how to do it at home. We do everything together. Our father, he would do everything for us, our brother, do everything for us. Yeah, sometimes we do it ourself, but still like paperwork and these things, it was all family together. You don’t know how to do it yourself. And also living alone. It wasn’t a thing, you know, like you always live with your family till you get married and then you leave if you’re a boy or girl. Everybody’s same. And I think at the beginning it was hard to live with myself and do like alone every day in the same room or just with strangers and everything. So. So that’s. (3rd party) Yes. Yeah.

Yeah. And how does the feeling of not belonging, discrimination, stigma impact you and could you describe this?
Ohhh..For me? Actually, I never felt that. So I always say, because if you look at me, I do not look like I’m from the Middle East because I’m not wearing a headscarf. My skin color is a bit more white than it’s dark. Um, yeah, my hair color is normal, like everybody has it. And I speak fluent English. So that’s why I think one of the reasons why I wasn’t discriminated or been through any situation, but I’ve been discriminated when I was searching for housing, for example, when people know I’m a refugee, they stopped talking to me or they stopped continuing the situation. Um, so though that is just one of the things that I went through myself. But I have heard hundreds and hundreds of stories of people like what they deal with and how they go through these things, especially women with the headscarf. So, yeah, I wasn’t myself, but I know there’s like there’s a lot happening outside. And not only for the refugees, you know, you have a anyone who’s not honestly white. Like they will have to face something either that or the people who white , like everybody is facing the start of things, I think, every day. 

And could you ever have imagined that you would have been able to handle this situation? I mean, how have you been able to overcome with it?
I mean, it’s been five years, so it’s a long time ago now. But handling others situation, I think by when I’m here, where we’re sitting here and see what’s going on in Greece, for example, on the borders, this is difficult and it’s affecting my own mental health very badly because I used in the past, you spoke English about it and then everything’s fine. No, we make a project and we do something. But now being here, I just feel very hopeless sometimes. And then I always try to create a project or to create a new ways to, like, contribute there. Or so that is the struggle for me. But of from personally, I don’t have any more struggles with related to these matters. I don’t think I ever struggle like from when I first arrived.

And do you think that you do a lot to deal with this challenge or do you think you always had those skills, mechanism, resilience.
Uh say again your Question?

And do you think that you developed the ability to deal with these challenges or do you think you always had those skills, mechanism?
I think no one will have the skills because because I don’t know what I am dealing with, like, is all new. But I got to say I have the skills or the charisma. But I think you learn every day by surrounding yourself with the right people who actually can tell you what to do in situations. Like, for example, I grew up around, I grew up I live three years in Greece with volunteers- the activists was and I learned from them on just who you surround yourself with. And they are the ones who actually help you, like, come out of I don’t know, how to say it, but you don’t just come with a skill. You know, I we were living I was living in Syria. First of all, they speak different language there and we have different vision there. So it was just different things. I think it’s just been making your body or yourself able to adapt and change within within the temperature, within the weather, within the place, the people, the language and being open minded. To receive everything and either you develop it and take it out and do something with it, or you just keep it in the side, but at least receive everything, you know what I mean? So I think that’s how I went with all of this and how I did it.

And how has COVID-19 affect your impact in terms of daily life and feelings, well-being.
So thank God I didn’t lose my job. I’m lucky I have a job. I think it’s just affected me that instead of getting dressed and going to the office, I just get dressed and stay at home. And it’s a bit tiring. It’s frustrating because I don’t I can’t be in one place, like I cannot be in the city. I travel all the time. Imagine being in one room and at one point it, was going to learn how to live, you know, in one place and settle down. I didn’t have this room before COVID. I got after COVID. And I settle down and I made a home for myself. But in general, I don’t know, like I’m lucky so that I can like I’m able to work and eat and live normally. I think it’s just like every struggle I am is going out dancing with my friends. And I miss just being able to just do whatever I want, whenever I want. But yeah, but apart from that, everything’s good.

And of course, I know your story, but I ask for the people who don’t know. Yeah, and why did you leave your country? Could you describe what happened?
And so back in 2015, we lost our family house. And also, we couldn’t really, really go to swim anymore and the swimming pool, because we are professionals from races where we’re so young. So I think that was the main reason that we couldn’t go swim. We couldn’t go to school,  and the main reason was also losing the home, our home. So that was a decision. We were like, OK, we are swimmers and we in general, like we just want to continue our life normal. So I don’t want to sit at home and wait to the war is over. God knows when that will happen, you know? And then we ask my dad and they decide to send us to to Europe. Yeah.

And how did that make you feel at that time?
Oh, so happy .People will hate that. But yeah, I was so happy to leave. I think it just. I didn’t know the big responsibility that I’m taking in or what where I’m putting myself or I did a home go to Europe, you know, I didn’t know that like a whole matureness and grown up world is in ahead of me, which we had at home, but again, as I said, we live as a family. We don’t live alone so that we have to do it alone, eh do it together. So, yeah. So that’s that’s what I was I was happy to leave honestly. 

And how was the journey to Europe? Is that an experience that was particularly difficult that you could tell us about?
Oh, there’s hundreds, if not so. And I think that the experience to Europe that’s everybody know about this one. Which when we had the normal journey from Turkey, like everyone else. We went from Damascus to flew to Turkey. Back then, there was no visa yet. So we were from those groups um we made it. Yeah, we flew to Turkey and from Turkey, we have a contact smuggler. Of course, not to smuggle people to get smuggled ourself. This is for my case in general, because I have to say that because of my case in Greece and everything. Um so basically we talk to the smuggler and then he picks it up, pick us up and then take us through to Izmir with bus for 10 hours. And then Izmir like we were waiting for a couple of days in Syria where, like, I was shore. There’s no hotels and no bathrooms. You just sleep there, basically. And then we were in a boat. And that’s the main story that basically the engine we left the shoreline and 15 minutes later the engine stopped. So together, me and my sister with other people, we started jumping in the water and pushed the boat out because, as I said, freshman swimmers and real lifeguards. So we know how to do it basically. So, yeah, we kept on doing that for three and a half hours and we made it we made it to the north shore line of Lesbos and we all was saved like no one was even injured. And then from Lesbos, where you were, we went to Athens for the ferry and then from Athens to Macedonia by walking or sometimes you talk to smuggler who take you by bus and left Macedonia to Serbia, Serbia to Hungaria um,  hungary and then Hungary to Vienna, Austria, and then Vienna, Austria to Germany, Munich, and then in Munich they drove us all the way to Berlin. And we arrived in Berlin and we never left, like, um, like we didn’t want to go somewhere else. We went to do some point to follow with the people that we came with. But then later we were like, I mean, actually we were lucky that we are here, like, why would we leave? And yeah, we were living here since then.

And how did you feel when this boat’s going down?
And I don’t remember because that’s five years now but of course, it was scary. It was it was just so unreal and it’s so cinematic, let’s call it that way. Like you don’t even like even now, five years later, I don’t believe that’s happened. So it’s just I think it’s just so unreal and and it’s just so far from reality that. But it is a reality. It was scary. Of course, even if you’re professional swimmer, you get scared. Um, what else I felt. I just didn’t want to die. I think I think I was scared, but I didn’t sit down. We didn’t just rest. We were like, we want to live. We want to live it. We do something about it. OK, see, this is a great insight, you know.

And do you think about this events often?
No because I’m doing therapy, I started in March to come out of them, actually. But no, I don’t think of them. I think I think of others what they go through right now, because my story is in the past for how long I’m going to keep living. But and even when people say, oh, I know you’re famous and your story is like everybody knows that and they’re like, yes, but this is five years ago again. And the whole complete different person is not the same person. And I didn’t do it because I’m a hero. I do it. I did it because I’m a professional swimmer and the lifeguard, um, and when I did the whole thing off to become this professional swimmer or lifeguard, that’s the first thing that you do when someone drowning, no matter where you do something about it.

And does the situation you face today?
Say again.

And that’s the situation you faced affect you today.
Oh, no, I think it affects me in a positive way. Let’s call it because of what happened five years ago. I am who I am today. And and I feel more to people and I know more what what’s going on.And and that’s why I do a lot of interviews, for example, and I do a lot of work with universities because they ask me things that I’m aware of that because I experience it myself. I did. I did a research as well with an architecture about. How the camps are built and everything from A to Z, you know, questions and I when I answered everything and sounded very experienced to like, you know how like it’s building the little and I’m like, but then when you think about it, you just lived it. So I’m speaking. My experience is benefits a lot of people. And the most important part is that I’m very lucky that I have no social anxiety. I’m not afraid of speaking my mind and also that I can speak, that I’m able to translate what I have in my mind and in my heart. And I think I try my best to bring in what people would say if they ever speak. So. So that’s what my story brought me. And I think it should just showed the West that we’re not just a housekeepers and get raped and live in the kitchen. Honestly, sorry. Like, it’s very tough to say, but yeah, like we’re always projected that way. We’re always projected that we have no education, that we have corruption in our countries. And I’m not going to say we are the best, but we also have doctors and we also have strong females and we also have intellectuals and scientists and everything, just something that the society, like Western societies, sometimes try to close an eye on, not because they want it, because this is how the governments reject us and bring us to that. You know, I was once in a party and then someone saw me and they were like, where are you from? And as a Syrian, he was shocked. I could see in his face and I said, yeah, this is how we look like, you know, this is the refugee, he’s like  “fuck!” Like it’s just for him. It drove him crazy because he’s like “you look like me”, you know, like but it’s just they don’t the the press and there’s social media and all these people, they do not want to show that because if you see that I look like you are familiar. So you open your door and accept me. But they don’t want that. So I think. Yep.

And could you ever have imagined that you would have been able to handle this situation?
No, still no no. I think I think something that the refugee journey brings you, that you learn so many things about yourself, you didn’t even know you can do that. That’s I always say. Even when my sister was in the water, I was so shocked she could do that. You know, after this journey, I think me and my sister can go to the moon and come back, and I know we can do it. So I think it was just this journey at how for others maybe it wasn’t like I’m sure 99 percent. it wasn’t a good journey. I was lucky I made it safe. One piece didn’t get hurt and was able to live after it. Some people couldn’t. Some people lost a lot. But for me and for my sister, we just learned what we are capable of, what can we take and what we can. And trust me, the Middle Eastern woman is very strong.

And how are you able to survive? Get through it. I mean.
Therapy, therapy, there’s no other way. 

Have you created any kind of strategy or?
No therapy. There’s no other way. I would tell you, I tried for many years and it’s that’s what I really like. This is my main advice to everyone. Therapy, because you’re not just processing a journey, you’re processing a trauma from a war before that we all experience we all had a bad fucked up situation that we had to come out of therapy. There’s no other way you can deal with it. Talking to friends and family- no no no no.  Therapy, you need someone who is professional, who can ask questions are tough and there will be a response to what you can do and how you can handle it.

And before the event that led you to flee home. Yes. And what was your dream?
Um, my dream was to get an Olympic gold Olympic medal in swimming and make everyone stand up for my Syrian anthem. That was my my only dream as a child. 

And when you are leaving your home. What was your dream for the future?
Um, I don’t really think about the future. I think, um. I don’t know. I think I don’t have a dream. I just wanted to be safe first, and now I just make sure that I’m in a good place. I have food on my table. I’m able to sleep safely at night happy. And that’s all that matters for me. I don’t have any dreams.

And am just before leaving your home country, what would you describe as your strengths?
Oh, my family. My family like is always my strength and it’s always my strength, um, my sisters, my mom, my father, because I learned everything from them, you know, it’s who we are. We are the people that we we see everyday, not the people we watch on TV and everything. So, yeah, my strength came from my family.

And, um, do you feel like you have grown in any way as a result of this experience?  Or presenting it’s has anything at all positive come out of it?
Who I am today, that’s a positive come out from my story. I think I became stronger, braver. I speak my mind. I always spoke my mind, but now even politically. I do it. I don’t care. I just I’m being true to myself as much as possible

And what are your hopes and dreams for the future?
I think um I don’t want call them dreams because dreams are a bit more like very far and you cannot be really reachable. I think it’s just that we finally find a solution for the migration uh I don’t want to call it crisis because it’s not crisis, the European crisis is who’s receiving you crisis. Is not you coming? You’re seeking safety.  think that we get familiar with the history that it’s been happening for years and years and years and years is not new. And it’s just now because we were a couple of years, we’re going to have a climate refugees. Where are we going to put them? You know, I think just starting to open everybody to open their mind, their houses and their home like their country, you know? And then someone asked me, what would you say to the rest, to the people who do not want refugees in their countries? I said they are not going to live in your living room and there is enough space for everybody so like Get over yourself, basically. So I think it’s just. Yeah, just that we are stop covering the problems and we actually go with them and fix them.

And is there anything you would like to add that might help people in Europe better understand the life of refugee here?
I think what I would say is to now think of it as a bit hard, but, um, do the research yourself, first of all, and stop asking the question, how is your journey? Where did you come from? How is home? These things that will get very tired of of answering. It’s just if you’re really interested, you just look it up because it’s really hard to always answer just type of questions and make you always stand out as like you have a different life. Um, and in general is to stop normalizing what’s going on in the Middle East in general. Like Middle East as speaking of Syria, Afghanistan, Afghanistan is not really considered Middle East. But unless you’re like and just in general like to start normalizing the war zones, like, for example, look on Palestine and Israel for how many years has been happening. And it’s okay now. It’s normal. People at the beginning they used to feel like so sorry when they see pictures on Facebook and they do something about it and now just became a life and swipe up and whatever. So I think it’s just acknowledged this is this situation could happen to anyone and stop leaving it on their doorstep and living life like this would never reach you. So that’s it  that’s that’s that’s what I’d said 

Thank you.
Thank you.

Many 1000 Dreams interviews were not conducted in English. Their translation has not always been performed by professional translators. Despite great efforts to ensure accuracy, there may be errors.