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Syrian lecturer successfully completes English Channel swim

  • Date

    Tue 13 Aug 19

Zeina Alsharkas

After months of gruelling training, University of Essex lecturer Dr Zeina Alsharkas has finished her swim across the English Channel to highlight the plight of refugees fleeing her war-torn home country of Syria.

Dr Alsharkas, 28, embarked on the symbolic swim from England to France to highlight the incoherence of war and to send a message of peace and hope.

Completing the 21-mile swim from England to France in just 11 hours and 36 minutes, (expected duration is approx. 15 hours), Dr Alsharkas is the first Syrian woman to complete this momentous challenge.

She said: “The swim went great and nearly everything went to plan. I am very happy with the time as I swam as well as I could on the day with the conditions I was faced with.”

Some of the biggest challenges early on in her swim were strong currents, torrential rain and jellyfish.

She said: “It was very choppy in the first half of the swim up until I cleared the South West Zone. I felt a bit unwell and I was concerned that the pain would increase. Thankfully, with pain killers, I started to feel better.”

Dr Alsharkas also had to swim through a bloom of jellyfish in the Separation Zone of the channel.

She said: “I knew it is full of jellyfish, but I also knew that it is the shortest zone. I increased my pace to clear it as soon as possible to avoid jellyfish and I also knew once I cleared it, I would be more than half way through my swim.”

Coach Tim Denyer from Red Top Swim provided guidance and support to Dr Alsharkas throughout her swim onboard the Viking Princess fishing trawler.

She said: “I had amazing friends and my coach on the boat who were all cheering me up all the time.

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As night fell, Dr Alsharkas was concerned about swimming in total darkness, but was spurred on by the thought of family waiting for her on the other side. 

She was greeted on French shores by 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.

She said: “I was very happy to see them all waiting on the beach. My mum was wading in the water to hug me first thing but I ran away from her. If I touched her before I cleared the water I would have been disqualified!”

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

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.

As well as raising awareness of the plight of refugees from Syria, Dr Alsharkas took up the challenge to raise money for Sawa for Development & Aid to support children in refugee camps in Lebanon. Donations are still welcome, so please visit her JustGiving page.

Watch the highlights video from Dr Alsharkas' swim on Vimeo.