MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We'd like to turn now to the story of one Syrian refugee who escaped the country and made it to Europe. Just three years ago, she was celebrated for helping rescue 20 asylum-seekers, but now, she's in a Greek jail. As Joanna Kakissis reports, aid workers say she is the victim of a growing anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe.
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Panos Moraitis founded the Greek non-profit Emergency Response Centre International at the end of 2015. A couple of months earlier, the maritime security specialist had choked up seeing a photograph of a dead Syrian toddler washed up on shore.
PANOS MORAITIS: Back then, my wife was pregnant. And that picture started to haunt me. And being involved with preservation of life at sea by trade, I tried to find a way that I could help people drowning coming over to the Greek shores.
KAKISSIS: With the help of private donations, Moraitis bought a couple of boats and SUVs and set up shop on the island of Lesbos. He hired a former Greek naval officer as the field director of the nonprofit known by its acronym, ERCI.
MORAITIS: We were very, very cautious as an organization. We were vetting properly the volunteers. We were asking for criminal background checks, for their CVs. It was not a free-for-all, everyone who wanted to offer services would join ERCI.
KAKISSIS: One of those volunteers was Sarah Mardini, a 23-year-old Syrian refugee with a story so epic it's being made into a movie.
KAKISSIS: Three years ago, she and her younger sister Yusra, who were elite swimmers in Damascus, were on a refugee boat that stalled off the coast of Lesbos. Sarah told the story in a speech in Budapest last year.
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SARAH MARDINI: There's waves and sea and water from all the sides. I jump in the water, and I pushed. That's simply what you do when you're stuck. My 17 years old sister - she jumped in the water. We ended up being in the water for three and a half hours, and we made it safely to Greece, thank god
KAKISSIS: The sisters eventually claimed asylum in Germany.
MARTIN: Yusra went on to fame as a member of the refugee Olympic team and swam in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Sarah won a scholarship to Bard College in Berlin. She decided to volunteer in Greece to show that refugees are not victims.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARDINI: I didn't been the victim. I change it. I became the reason why I give hope to the others.
KAKISSIS: Sarah was one of more than 7,000 volunteers on the island of Lesbos. As she waited at the airport last month to return to Berlin, Greek police arrested her. Two other volunteers from the ERCI non-profit as well as the former field director have also been arrested. Police have charged them with crimes including money laundering, espionage, forgery and breaching immigration law. Moraitis, the group's founder, says he's in shock.
MORAITIS: We're not guilty. The organization followed every rule that was asked and every Greek rule and European rule and best practices and code of conduct.
KAKISSIS: Sarah Mardini is now in a maximum security prison in Athens. Her lawyer, Haris Petsikos, says aid workers are being criminalised across Europe
HARIS PETSIKOS: Throughout all Europe, there are many groups of people against the refugees. They don't want the refugees in their town, their country or in Europe.
KAKISSIS: Mardini and the other defendants are expected in court as early as this week.
For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.