Syrian lecturer all set for 'symbolic' Channel swim bid

  • Date

    Fri 2 Aug 19

Headshot of Zeina Alsharkas

Syrian University of Essex lecturer Dr Zeina Alsharkas will this month swim the English Channel to highlight the plight of refugees fleeing her war-torn home country.

She will symbolically swim from England to France - the opposite direction refugees come to the UK from - to show the incoherence of war and to send a message of peace and hope.

“By swimming the English Channel I want to bring hope to all refugees that they will be able one day to choose the direction they want to take in life," she said.

Dr Alsharkas, 28, left Syria in 2012 to study for an Economics Masters at Essex. She went on to take a PhD and now lectures at the University’s Department of Economics.

"I didn't have to go through a dangerous journey to be in the UK,” she added. “For me it was natural as I had always wanted to study and continue my education. But I wanted to swim the English Channel in a symbolic act that embodies the sentiments and the efforts that my compatriots go through.”

Swimming has always been a passion for her and before coming to the UK she was a swimmer with the Syrian national team and was the national 50m and 100m butterfly champion.


Training for the 21-mile swim bid began at the end of 2018 and has included 5km swims at least four times a week in a pool, plus longer 11-14km outdoor swims at the weekend off the Tendring peninsula. She has also put on 8.5kg in weight to insulate herself from the cold waters of the Channel.

“Swimming in the sea is so unpredictable – it just depends on the conditions. But it is also quite liberating as it is just you and the sea. My whole training has been such an incredible journey and I’m so glad it has gone so well.”

As for any fears about the swim. “Jellyfish!” she said. “I have heard there are carpets of jellyfish in the Channel.”

If successful, Dr Alsharkas will become one of less than 2,000 swimmers to have achieved the feat. Hopefully welcoming her ashore in France will be her sister Hela, who is currently studying in France, and her mother Huda, who successfully applied for a temporary visa so she could cheer her daughter at the finish line.

“Swimming to meet my sister and mum in France will represent the efforts and the struggle that all refugees go through to reach their loved ones,” she added. “I owe my mum everything. She was the one who first encouraged me to take up swimming and gave up so much of her time to take me to training and competitions.”

Dr Alsharkas will attempt her swim, depending on weather conditions, between 6 and 16 August. She will start the swim at Shakespeare’s Cliff between Folkestone and Dover and finish near Cap Gris Nez between Boulogne and Calais, depending on the tide and will be in the water for about 15 hours.

She is also using the swim to raise money for Sawa for Development and Aid to support children in refugee camps in Lebanon and has set up a JustGiving page.