Around age 12, Nadia Nadim fled her native Afghanistan with her mother and four sisters after her father, a general in the Afghan army, was murdered by the Taliban. They settled as refugees in Denmark, where she blossomed as a soccer player. In 2014, Nadim moved from the Danish club Fortuna Hjørring to the New Jersey–based Sky Blue FC. She joined the Portland Thorns in 2016 and dominated last season as the team’s leading goal scorer. And—oh yeah—when she’s not playing for the Thorns or the Danish national team, she attends medical school at Denmark’s Aarhus University. Refugees, amirite?
In Afghanistan, the Taliban had all these laws and rules that we, as women, were not supposed to work or go to school or go outside. So it was really, really hard for us to live there, with just my mom and sisters—six women. My mom wanted us to have the best possible future, so she hired a human smuggler. The plan was for us to go to England, because I have family there, but we ended up in a tiny town in Denmark. I don’t know what happened. I think at that point we were happy we were safe.
I never saw any female doing any kind of sports [in Afghanistan]. My dad kind of introduced us to football, so I knew I had to kick the ball, but I didn’t play. It really started when I was in Denmark in the refugee camp. We started to play with each other and have competitions—who can juggle the longest, all that stuff. We played with other refugee kids: Arabs, Armenians, Palestinians, Iraqi kids.
When we moved out of the refugee center, there wasn’t a team close by. The coach from the club near the refugee center said we should still go try out. My mom was like, “Hell no, it’s too far away!” We didn’t have a lot of money, and my mom had to work a lot of jobs just for us to survive. We got her to let us try once, and the coaches said, “We’re going to figure out the transportation issue—we’re going to get you bus passes so you don’t have to buy them.”
There are moments in my life when someone did a little thing from their side, but it had a huge impact on me. And I know as a doctor, I’ll be able to do that for other people. I know 100 percent that I want to be a surgeon.
I could be dead [if we’d stayed in Afghanistan]. I know myself, the mentality I have, which I think I got from my mom—I don’t take stuff. If someone tells me do something and I disagree, I won’t just do it, I’ll ask why. I don’t think that mind-set works there.
I never thought for a second Trump was going to win. I don’t understand the logic behind it. He’s homophobic, he’s sexist, he’s Islamophobic. What the fuck? I don’t know why everyone is so scared of helping and being human beings. They say, “We’re trying to protect our own people because of terrorism,” but that’s bullshit.
I’m a Muslim, and I wouldn’t hurt an ant. We put the blame on some group, and right now it’s Muslims. I don’t understand people not learning from history. The only thing I can do is say, “That’s not true—not all Muslims are terrorists.” It has nothing to do with Islam.
Right now, my main focus is obviously to get back to 100 percent health [after a knee injury last October] and to improve every day so I can be super sharp for the league, then at the European Championships with the [Danish] national team. The Thorns had a really great season last year. I hope we continue building on that. And obviously, at a minimum, that we get to be among the four top [playoff] teams. I feel we have the quality of players to do that.
I’m blessed to be in the position to be able to tell people that this is possible. I’m happy I can show that good stories can exist too. You just have to give people a chance.