Sarah Mardini was undoubtedly the highlight of the 2019 Amnesty International UK student conference that took place in London on 2-3 November. The conference was incredibly diverse and eye-opening, gathering an array of young activists from universities countrywide, with some international guests too. But the spotlight could not be contested, it went to Sarah Mardini, and rightfully so; with her powerful speech, she managed to make us all shed a tear.
The story of Sarah could be seen by many as one of sadness, loss and despair; but she doesn’t choose to view it that way, and calls out anyone who dares call her a victim. She is a survivor. Her story is one of perseverance, ambition and justice. Sarah and her younger sister, Yusra, fled war-torn Syria in 2015 after years of fearing for their lives, watching bombs drop from the sky from their own bedroom windows. Their parents and younger sister remained behind with the aim to spare the little one from added trauma (she had never lived without the war) but later decided to flee too.
Sarah and Yusra went days without water and food, turned themselves in to be smuggled across their own border and had to endure an unimaginable boat trip across the Mediterranean; one which involved swimming in the freezing cold water for hours just in the hope of keeping the raft afloat. After days of uncertainty, life-threatening experiences and trauma they reached the shore of Lesvos, empty handed. They had decided to leave their past life behind. During the plenary Sarah confessed that as a twenty year old, asking her to fit all of her life in one backpack was asking her to choose what memories to keep; so instead, she left empty-handed, with only some clothes, ready to build this new chapter from zero and refusing to forget anything that had happened on the other shore of that infamous trip.
Needless to mention, this was not the last of their nightmares. They were made to travel back and forth, had to apply to go as refugees from one country into the next, crossing borders, their aim being to reach a friend’s house in Germany. By the time Sarah arrived at her destination, a month had passed since she had fled home. As two young, professional swimmers, Yusra and Sarah had jobs available in Europe. Yusra went on to be selected for the Rio Refugee Olympic Team; due to a permanent injury, Sarah was told not to compete professionally, yet she continued to swim. Sarah has since enrolled in Bard College, Berlin, where she holds a scholarship, has become a motivational speaker, human rights activist and, overall, a really amazing person. She decided to go back to Lesvos, to help in a search-and-rescue organisation, welcoming people that, like her, had had to flee their past lives. Little did she know it’d be the end of her freedom.
Sarah was arrested in the airport in Greece and traumatised by the way the Greek police handled her: handcuffed, stared at, and treated like she wasn’t a person, thus having many of her human rights, once again, violated. She and her colleague, Sean Binder, spent more than 100 days in prison charged with: spying, people smuggling and belonging to a criminal organisation among other charges. They were held in Koryallos prison in Athens, considered one of Greece’s toughest jails.
One of the ‘crimes’ Sarah had committed in the past years included helping 18 refugees reach shore from their torn raft in 2015. Some of the ‘crimes’ her and Sean committed on a daily basis were handing people that had just risked their lives at sea, blankets and water. She stresses they did not do hero work, they simply helped people make it to shore. It is the refugees that had fought for their own lives and had survived; they merely handed water. If found guilty, Sean and Sarah could be jailed for 25 years; for SOLIDARITY. The most concerning aspect of this case, is, that it is not unique.
Besides the level of injustice and the need for a change, what struck me the most during the plenary, and I believe my colleagues from Amnesty too, was how approachable, down to earth and similar to us Sarah is. I was lucky enough to bump into her in the smoking area, and after thanking her for her moving speech, we proceeded to have a laugh, talk about the conference and about the case of white privilege (which was also one of the topics). She seemed very keen to come and visit Durham University, and so there is the possibility, that you, too, will be able to hear her compelling story. If you wish to read more, the book ‘Butterfly’ gives a much more detailed account and what Yusra and Sarah went through.
As of now, what we can do as students is to keep relentlessly advocating for human rights, keep speaking up for those voices who’ve been forcibly silenced. Amnesty International is running a campaign called ‘Write for Rights’ that allows you to send Sean and Sarah, as well as people trapped in other human rights’ violations cases, a message of support or strength; you can also send an appeal message to tell the Greek authorities to drop all charges against the two humanitarian activists.
No one should be imprisoned for solidarity, no one should endure human rights violations, and no one should be stripped off their right to speak up. Saving lives is not a crime.