We’re Swimmers {Book Club}

Damascus, Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany. After keeping a dinghy afloat for hours in sea, running through a cornfield to avoid being caught by the police, being held by the authorities and tricked by smugglers, Yusra and her sister, along with the rest of their group, finally make it to Berlin, Germany.

What struck me over and over in this section was that in many ways Yusra’s story is not unique. She wrote in chapter sixteen, “That first weekend in September 2015 alone, twenty thousand people arrive on buses and trains from Hungary through Austria into Germany.” So many others risked everything to leave their homes, holding on to hope for safety and a future.

But she did acknowledge the way her situation was affected by having the money to make this journey. “There are a lot of misunderstandings about money. It’s hard for some people to accept, but anyone who made it to Europe must have been reasonably well off at home. Everyone I know who did the journey from Syria spent at least three thousand dollars. Many of them sold everything, their houses, their cars, all they owned to get this far. We’re the lucky ones.”

I know many of you have worked with refugees in various places. What are your thoughts on needing to have money to make the journey like Yusra did? Is that something you have experienced in your work?

After Yusra and her sister arrive in Berlin, they have the opportunity to swim again! I was amazed by the generosity of the coaches as they found a spot for Yusra to stay and train, providing meals and swimming gear and friendship too.

Depending on where one lives or what news they are listening to, there can be many stereotypes or stigmas related to refugees. Even the way we talk about people who leave their home country can impact our views: refugee, illegal immigrant, asylum seeker. There are layers to the issues and it can be overwhelming, confusing or triggering to try and unpack all that is involved.

You all have mentioned this too, but Yusra has brought a sense of humanity to the conversations about many of these issues. She talked about how it was hard to depend on others for help or for resources, how difficult it was to understand why she and others in her group were treated so poorly or taken advantage of. Even in the direst of circumstances, we all want to be treated respectfully and given the ability to make our own choices.

Are there issues that Yusra brought up in this section that surprised you or stuck out to you? As we finished this section she said, “Getting help from the IOC is an amazing opportunity for any athlete. But to get help because I’m a refugee? It feels a bit like charity. If I compete at the Olympics, I want it to be because I’m good enough. Not because people feel sorry for me.” What do you think about her reaction?

We will finish up our discussion of the book next week!

July 27– Chapters 18-22, Conclusion

In August we will be reading These Nameless Things by Shawn Smucker! Here’s a summary of the book:

Before Dan opened his door to find a wounded woman who had escaped from the tormentors in the mountain, his life had become rather quiet. He and the eight other people in the mostly abandoned town had become friends. They spent peaceful evenings around the campfire and even made vague plans to journey east one day and leave the ominous mountain behind.

But the woman’s arrival changes everything. 
Who is she? How does she know so much about Dan’s brother, who is still held captive in the mountain? Why are long-forgotten memories rising to the surface? And why does Dan feel so compelled to keep her presence in his house a secret?

Visionary writer Shawn Smucker is back with an unsettling story that invites us to consider two challenging questions: To what lengths will we go to assuage our own guilt? and Is there a limit to the things we will do for the people we love?

Reading schedule:

August 3: Prologue, Chapters 1-7

August 10: Chapters 8-15

August 17: Chapters 16-22

August 24: Chapters 23-30

August 31: No Book Club, learn about the next session of Connection Groups


  1. Bayta Schwarz July 23, 2021

    I just saw that Yusra seems to be part of the ROT again! I wonder if I’ll be able to catch some of her races.

    This section felt very close to home in places! One of the stops the train (briefly) came to a halt at just outside Budapest, I have been to dozens and dozens of times. It felt surreal to think that while I was catching the metro to head into Budapest for some touristy fun, there might have been a train passing through with people wondering whether they will make it across the next border or not. We really have no clue what all might be going on around us… I also remember a friend who lives just outside of Budapest saying she could suddenly hear lots of police, helicopters etc and realised they were “accompanying” the large group of people walking along the motorway.
    And then of course she ends up in Berlin, where I was living at the time. For a moment I thought she might end up in the centre I helped out a few times but that wasn’t the case. The same part of the city but not the same place.
    Also it was sad to hear how she felt her whole identity was reduced to being “a refugee” (in the eyes of other people). Even with a normal move overseas I feel it takes a while to be seen as who you are rather than as the foreigner or whatever. How much more so when you arrive with so many practical needs – and with so many thousand of others who are in the same situation!

  2. Phyllis July 24, 2021

    Isn’t August Fredric Backman month here? I’ll miss him!

    I’m enjoying this book. I’ve read several refugee stories over the past few years. All are so different, and all are so close to my heart. Thank you for choosing this one.

    1. Sarah Hilkemann July 26, 2021

      Phyllis, we are switching things up this year! 🙂

      I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed Butterfly!

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