blue-toned photo of movie theatre with audience facing brightly lit screen

A Refugee Story Takes Centre Stage at TIFF: An overview of The Swimmers from an immigration lawyer

  • November 30, 2022
  • Carrie Wright

The Toronto International Film Festival, known as TIFF, is one of the largest public film festivals in the world. It has a reputation for showcasing the best of film to the greatest of audiences – not just because I am part of that audience! For 2022, TIFF featured the world premiere of The Swimmers as its opening gala film. TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey cited how he was moved by the story, and chose The Swimmers as the opening film to honour those who have risked everything in search of a better and safer life.

The Swimmers is a film directed by Sally El Hosaini, and written by El Hosaini and Jack Thorne. It is based on the true story of two sisters, Yusra and Sara Mardini, who escaped from Syria after the start of the war in an effort to make it to Germany, where they intended to obtain refugee status for themselves and their remaining family in Syria. Having been trained as swimmers by their father since they were young, the sisters have dreams of someday competing at the Olympics. They leave Syria hoping to make that dream a reality. The film tracks the sisters’ journey to Germany, as well as their experiences upon arrival. They first escape to Lebanon, then head to Turkey where they cross the Mediterranean Sea to Greece under dangerous conditions. They then continue on through Europe to Germany, only to be met with delays and uncertainty over the processing of their refugee applications. Through it all, Yusra and Sara maintain their tenacity, and Yusra is able to get the attention of swim coach Sven Spannekrebs, who agrees to train the sisters to help them realize their Olympic dreams.  

As an immigration lawyer, I believe I viewed the film through a very specific lens. Although I was not familiar with Yusra and Sara’s story specifically, I still had a general sense of what their journey would look like, as there are so many with similar heartbreaking stories who have been through, and continue to go through, the refugee system here and abroad. Also, while I am not familiar with German immigration processes, I still expected that their arrival in Germany may not be quite what the sisters hoped or anticipated. When they are speaking with a case officer about their applications, I knew what the news would be – they are told that their applications will be in process for a couple of years and that they may not qualify to have their family join them due to legislative requirements. Immigration lawyers everywhere have had to have conversations breaking difficult news like this with their clients, who are so desperate for certainty and safety and yet are stuck in limbo due to the delays of bureaucracy.    

The film made an excellent opening gala for an immigration lawyer to attend. On the one hand, it made me proud of my work—to be part of a worldwide community that seeks to defend the rights of and provide assistance to those who are in Yusra and Sara’s situation. It is a special privilege to be able to come alongside people when they are at their most vulnerable. It was also encouraging to see that the sisters’ efforts ultimately were not in vain. On the other hand, it was a reminder that our system of dealing with refugee claimants has room for improvement to ensure that we are balancing program integrity and security concerns with compassion and empathy for those who have experienced horrors beyond what most of us can imagine. Despite having heard similar stories before, I was still moved by shots of thousands of discarded lifejackets on the Greek shore and the scores of people in the hangar where Yusra and Sara are housed while they endure a long and frustrating wait for legitimate status in Germany. 

It is not an easy film to watch, but it is a powerful story of hope and heart. As an immigration lawyer, it was a worthwhile reminder of the realities that are faced by many refugee claimants not just on their physical journey, but also once they have reached their destination. It spurs reflection on our current refugee system and what my role is, or should be, within it. 

The Swimmers was released on Netflix globally on November 23, 2022.  


photo of author Carrie WrightCarrie is a partner at BARTLAW LLP and Barrister and Solicitor in Toronto, Ontario. Since joining BARTLAW LLP in August 2011, Carrie has practiced exclusively in the area of Canadian immigration and citizenship law. She has assisted both corporate and individual clients on work permit applications, labour market impact assessments, and employer compliance issues and reviews. Carrie is experienced and knowledgeable in Canadian immigration law relating to permanent resident cards, citizenship, humanitarian and compassionate applications, and refugee applications, and has represented clients on a number of applications for leave and judicial review at the Federal Court.


This article was originally published on the OBA’s Citizenship and Immigration Law Section’s articles page.