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While watching the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, you might have heard of Yursa Mardini. She is a 23-year-old swimmer that was part of the Refugee Olympic Team. She became famous for her journey, coming from Syria in the middle of the war. She shared her experience with the world in a book called “Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian – My Story of Rescue, Hope, and Triumph,” which is currently being turned into a movie.

In 2015, Yursa and her older sister, Sarah Mardini, made the dangerous journey from Turkey to Greece in a frail rubber dinghy. This was during the height of the migration crisis in Syria due to the multi-sided civil war in the country, 

The sisters, who had been trained in swimming professionally, almost died when they jumped in the water, along with another passenger to push the boat to shore. The boat had 18 other passengers when the engine failed and the boat began to sink. 

Now, Yursa became a professional competitive swimmer based in Germany. She participated both in the 2016 and the 2020 Olympics.

Sarah, who is also primarily based in Germany, returned to the island of Lesbos, in Greece, many times over the period of two years to volunteer with the Greek non-profit Emergency Response Center International (ECRI).

ECRI is “a non-profit organization that provides emergency response and humanitarian aid in life-threatening environments,” according to its website. In 2018, when Sarah was about to leave Lesbos to return to school at Bard University in Berlin, she was arrested and put into prison in Athens.

In 2018, Sarah was jailed for three months, only released under bail. Due to a lengthy investigation that is still underway, the Greek police accused Sarah of offenses including “money laundering, smuggling, trafficking, and even espionage.” She could face 25 years in prison if she is charged with these crimes.

According to Human Rights Watch, the work that Sarah and other humanitarians did by conducting search and rescue operations in the Aegean Sea and helping people who arrived on the island of Lesbos was considered human smuggling. However, the law that they supposedly violated (Law 4251 of 2014) excludes helping asylum seekers. They were also working with a registered humanitarian nonprofit. 

Two other volunteers, Athanasios Karakitsos and Seán Binder, who also participated in search and rescue operations on the island of Lesbos, are also at risk of being imprisoned for 25 years. Sarah denies her charges and her lawyers claim that the accusations are baseless. 

Among the other accusations, the operations by the nonprofit are being labeled as a criminal organization. The operations being questioned are the monitoring of open maritime radio channels and public websites for information on the refugee boats as espionage, and fundraising as money laundering.

For years, the case was just in the background. However, a few weeks ago, the accused were told the case would be advanced and the trial would happen this November.

To fight against the accusations, the group created the campaign #FreeHumanitarians. This is an effort to fight back against the terrible accusations against people who are trying to save and preserve other people’s lives, guiding them towards a safer existence. 

Criminalization is a tactic being used in many European countries to discourage humanitarian actions. If helping others comes with a high individual cost, people will become fearful of what might happen to them if they help refugees as no one wants to enter legal battles and risk being branded as a criminal.

#freehumanitarias is advocating for the charges against Sarah, Nassos, and Seán to be dropped. Additionally, the group is campaigning to minimize humanitarians to be targets of government reprisal, as well as recognizing their work as essential to saving lives at sea and defending the rights of refugees. 

Learn how to help more here: freehumanitarians.org 






Renata is from Amazonas, Brazil, and studies international politics and broadcast journalism at Penn State. Her hobbies include reading and writing, editing pictures, and dancing for fun. She likes to learn new languages, currently speaks four, and is trying to learn a fifth. Fun fact: she wrote a book, but let’s not talk about that.
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