Article image

by Elaine K Howley

March 11, 2019

ALTS-certified instructor teaches refugees how to swim

In 2015 and 2016, as war raged in Syria and elsewhere across the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa, a migrant crisis unfolded at various gateways to Western Europe. Tens of thousands of displaced people were on the move, and in many cases their best chances for a new life lay at the far side of a terrifying and terribly dangerous sea crossing.

As she read daily updates about this humanitarian disaster, University of San Francisco Masters swimmer Michele Cobble decided she needed to do something. But just raising money or awareness wouldn’t be enough. Instead, she decided to lend her efforts to cleaning beaches on the Greek island of Lesbos with an organization called Lighthouse Relief. There, she met two retired professors from San Francisco State University who were also volunteering at Gekko Kids, a learning center for refugee children.

In visiting the school and meeting some of the 10,000 refugees who live in the Moria Camp on Lesbos while they await entry to other countries, Cobble found that many of the girls “were always quiet and despondent,” and some were resorting to self-harm. “It wasn’t until later that I discovered that they had really no outdoor activities available to them,” she says. Conditions at the camp, which is designed to handle just 1,500 people, are deplorable, and that only adds to the struggle many young women living there face.

Where others might’ve seen an insurmountable consequence of mass migration, Cobble saw an opportunity to make a difference. “Since I’ve supported adolescent girls’ empowerment programs most of my adult life, I decided it was pretty clear that these girls could use something like that,” she says. She partnered with those SF State professors and formed REAL International: Refugee Education and Learning, a nonprofit that aims to fill some of the educational and activity gaps for young refugees on Lesbos.

Swimming was an obvious first choice of activity to offer the adolescent girls she wanted to work with, Cobble says. Not only would swimming lessons help keep them safe on their island home, it would also help them deal with some of the trauma they’d endured in getting there; many had shared harrowing tales of crossing the Aegean in tiny boats.

Reaching these young women and providing them with a lifesaving and empowering skill seemed challenging but doable. But first Cobble wanted to be sure she was prepared for the task. Enter U.S. Masters Swimming’s Adult Learn-to-Swim Instructor Certification course. “It was something I’d wanted to do for a year but was sort of too busy to do it and kept putting it off,” she says. But energized by the prospect of helping these girls learn to swim, she signed up. “I found the instructor and other students to be really enthusiastic, especially about teaching traumatized people,” she says. The course gave her the skills and techniques she’d need to work with the young women living on Lesbos.

Because most of her students were afraid of the water, they started small by walking on the beach or sitting near the tide line and letting the water lap their toes, building familiarity and comfort with how the sea moves. Cobble taught on the eastern side of the island, where the water tends to be very rough, choppiness that, she says, “is a reminder of what it was like in the boats for them.”

In addition to getting the girls comfortable with the idea of swimming, it was also important for Cobble to create a safe space in which they could learn. Because many of the girls come from predominantly Muslim countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, she says, “for them, a safe place isn’t just location. It’s preferably a place without men around.” This would require some specific equipment, namely burkinis—modest swimwear that aligns with Muslim teachings. “I was able to locate very stylish burkinis on Amazon,” Cobble says. She also found a beach that was large enough to accommodate their needs but also remote enough for the girls to swim unobserved.

Over six weeks in 2018, Cobble taught 13 girls to swim in the azure water of the Aegean Sea. “It was pretty amazing,” she says. Cobble adds that the girls transformed, becoming more empowered and self-confident with each stroke. “They were amazed at what their bodies could do in the water, how strong they actually were, and how liberating and relaxing it was for them to lie in the water and look up at the sky,” says Cobble, who has also taught girls to ride bikes and hopes to expand her swim lessons.

Cobble’s swimmers have helped each other learn and grow. “That’s an amazing leadership quality that will help them face any other challenge and be good community leaders wherever they end up next,” she says. “Even if it’s on the island for another year, then at least they can help each other survive there.”


  • Adult Learn-to-Swim


  • ALTS
  • Inspiration