Feature by Kaya Purchase 

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Sarah Mardini is a Syrian refugee and trained coast guard who was arrested last year for volunteering to help refugee boats in distress off the coast of Greece. She saved 18 lives. Sarah was charged with smuggling and espionage, accusations that her lawyers have deemed completely baseless. She has already spent over 100 days in prison and is currently released on bail as she awaits her trial. One thing becomes so clear during our chat: Sarah is incredibly passionate about normalising the act of helping people, so that volunteering is not seen as heroic but as necessary. What does our world look like if helping others is criminalised? 

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More than anything, I admire a woman who speaks her mind. Sarah Mardini is most certainly such a woman. “Not everyone likes what I say,” she admitted during our Zoom interview. “But I will always speak my mind. It’s the way I’m true to myself.”

I was a little in awe when Sarah agreed to speak to me. Having read about her story, I was aware of the courage and endurance such a young woman must possess. In 2015, Sarah travelled from Damascus to Lesbos to escape the Syrian war. When the dinghy that she was travelling on began to capsize in the middle of the Mediterranean, Sarah and her sister, Olympic swimmer Yusra, jumped into the sea and pulled the dinghy to shore. 

Sarah went on to volunteer as a lifeguard for ERCI (Emergency Response Centre International), keeping watch for refugees in distress off the coast of Greece. She was later arrested for this work and spent 108 days in pre-trial detention. If sentenced, Sarah faces up to 25 years in prison. The charges are ludicrous and include accusations of espionage, smuggling and even money laundering. The relevance of these charges to the nature of ERCI’s work is utterly bizarre. It's obvious that they are thinly-veiled attempts to penalise Sarah and other volunteers for exercising only what is intrinsic to basic human nature: helping others.

It is the Western media that portrays such attributes and accomplishments as uncommon in a young woman, especially a refugee. The media is therefore quick to present an individual like Sarah as a heralded, worthy exception to the pervasive and negative stereotypes of refugees it often profits from perpetuating.


Despite my admiration for Sarah, she was keen to emphasise that she is ‘just a normal 24 year old Syrian girl’. I hasten to add that she is strong-minded, passionate and keenly intelligent, studying Politics and Art at Bard College, Berlin. However, Sarah’s insistence that she is ‘normal’ is an emphasis on her behalf to assert that whilst these attributes may be worthy of praise, they are not remarkable.

Sarah, whilst incredibly inspiring, has an issue with herself and her story being thought of as ‘exceptional’. It is the Western media that portrays such attributes and accomplishments as uncommon in a young woman, especially in someone who is a refugee. The media is therefore quick to present an individual like Sarah as a heralded, worthy exception to the pervasive and negative stereotypes of refugees it often profits from perpetuating. This, in turn, shapes public perception of refugees as a burden or problem, giving the very term ‘refugee’ negative connotations.

“We are limiting the psychology of refugees,” says Sarah. “We are not including them in our own solutions. We are not allowing people to contribute something to our society, even though they have plenty to offer — it takes resourcefulness to travel in the way they do — but we are trapping them in a situation where they are consumed by the need to just survive.”

Infantilising refugees works to maintain a hierarchy that favours those born in the Western World over those who emigrate there. 


“[Look] how everyone became very creative when they were at home due to Covid-19 lockdown restrictions. The people in a good situation, those who had food in the fridge — their creative sides came out. But then you go to the people who actually do not have money for rent, for food. They work so hard to figure out something and they are stressed all the time. They don’t have the ability to be creative because they’re in survival mode. This is what we are doing to the refugees. We are actually putting them in this position because there is no stable life for them.” 

Infantilising refugees works to maintain a hierarchy that favours those born in the Western World over those who emigrate there. The West is depicted as ‘supporting’ refugees, so refugees must therefore be victims, totally dependent on the ‘generosity’ of supposedly benevolent nations.

In this way, the process of infantilising and subsequently demonising refugees is just the flipside of the portrayal of those who help them as heroes. This narrative creates a rift between supposed heroes and victims, instead of normalising the fact that providing aid is a cyclical offering: we all need help at some point and it is often possible for the favour to be returned. In fact, helping those less fortunate than ourselves forms the base of the very human interaction that is integral to our survival.

It is not surprising, then, that the normalisation of Sarah’s role as a volunteer for ERCI was the persisting theme throughout our conversation. She spoke overwhelmingly of the power of small gestures: “We try to challenge the fact that you need a lot of money, a lot of resources, a lot of working hands. For us, it is more about one-on-one interaction, telling people what their responsibility is as we are doing our responsibility. There’s equality in there... mutual respect between everybody.”

It seems that when such kindness is extended to immigrants or foreign nationals, various media outlets morph the narrative and, subsequently, public perception of this issue from an admirable act to something radical and dangerous. 


 “I think just making someone smile, that’s what matters, because I’m not a wealthy person who could fix a whole camp. If I could, I would absolutely do so — but I’m just a normal human being who is volunteering and what I can provide is that I speak the Arabic language, and can make someone’s day better. We just break it down and make it simple. I think by doing that you feel so much better about yourself already.”

To me, this closely resembles the public spirit that has been cultivated throughout the UK as a positive response to Covid-19 lockdown restrictions. My concern is whether this compassion can be extended beyond one's local community to those on the fringes of society. If anything, Covid seems to have pushed marginalised groups further away, with many of them experiencing disproportionate levels of exposure to the virus, as have those on the frontline of the pandemic in essential worker roles, as well as inmates of Immigration Detention Centres.

It seems that when such kindness is extended to immigrants or foreign nationals, various media outlets morph the narrative and, subsequently, public perception of this issue from an admirable act to something radical and dangerous. If we wish to be considered humane and just, then community efforts should be inclusive of every human, the world over. 

Sarah described to me a system within ERCI that should serve as an example to wider society, not something to be penalised. “It is fascinating when you’re working where everybody has the same goal,” Sarah reflects. “It’s not perfect all the time, but these selfless communities are very rare and so special. It’s very beautiful to, for once in our lives, not put ourselves first — but we don’t leave ourselves behind. We just give everything its fair timing. We make sure to completely fulfill our responsibilities every day and then we go and take care of ourselves.”

"No matter what consequences it costs me," Sarah declares, "I will always speak my mind, because I’m an emotional person. I can’t live with the guilt, I don’t want to live with the guilt that I saw something that I didn’t like and didn’t talk about it."


“That we do all this without being paid makes it more special. People put so much energy into these places without being paid. There are so many people that I met there that I’m still in touch with, but I don’t think I’ll ever meet people like them again - maybe only in these types of places.”

For me, the sheer rarity of these pockets of co-operative, unconditional kindness poses a question: what kind of world do we face if these unique examples of active kindness become criminalised? I asked Sarah how she summons the courage to speak out about the things she cares about in the face of such dangerous opposition. 

“No matter what consequences it costs me,” Sarah declares, “I will always speak my mind, because I’m an emotional person. I can’t live with the guilt, I don’t want to live with the guilt that I saw something that I didn’t like and didn’t talk about it."

To save a life is not a political act: it is a human one. If we allow people to be punished for doing so, we risk living in a warped, dystopian society where our most natural instincts are controlled and regulated by fear of punishment for doing what we know to be right. 

"Don’t tell me you pulled through life all by yourself. I’m sure someone gave you a glass of water for free or helped you in the street or said a nice word to you. Just give it back."


I asked Sarah what we can do, on a personal level, to help. “Stop being selfish! Go out of your comfort zone a bit,” Sarah advises. “It’s the same old words, we say it forever! Just be involved in the community. Don’t tell me you pulled through life all by yourself. I’m sure someone gave you a glass of water for free or helped you in the street or said a nice word to you. Just give it back. That’s all I ask for: that we look around and see the blessing that we’re in, that we actually got help in our lives. Just give it back. It doesn’t need to be for refugees, just in general. As for my case, speak about it. Normalise the fact that I’m just a normal person, because anyone could be next.” 

Sarah’s case is not isolated. There are many other accounts of volunteers being arrested and charged for their humanitarian work. Most recently it has been made illegal to provide food donations to the inhabitants of refugee camps in Calais. Let’s do everything we can to put an end to the criminalisation of helping others, especially when they are in the direst of circumstances.

There is an online Amnesty International petition to demand that the charges against Sarah are dropped. You can sign it here.

There is also a fundraiser to help with the costs of trial, which is very expensive. You can donate to it here.

Kaya is a complete bibliophile with an especial love for classic literature and feminist texts. She is a staff writer at Aurelia. @KayaPurchase