Nadia Nadim was raised in Afghanistan until her father, an Afghan National Army general, was executed by the Taliban in 2000. Months later, when she was 11 years old, her family escaped the country in the middle of the night.
They were smuggled out of Afghanistan in the back of a truck on a route that took them to Pakistan, where they spent two months before flying to Italy.
From there, they were put in a van and “somehow ended up in a refugee camp in Denmark,” Nadim, 34, said in a recent interview.
During her nine months in the refugee camp, Nadim watched behind a fence as a group of Danish girls played soccer.
“This is the first time I discovered football,” she said. “It was love at first sight.”
It was also one of the first times she saw women and girls playing sports. Under Taliban rule, such activity can be interpreted as an act of defiance.
“I knew that I needed to be on that field and play football,” Nadim said.
Playing through the Danish club system, she rose to the national team in 2009 and played for some of the top teams around the world, including Manchester City WFC, Paris Saint-Germain Féminine, Portland Thorns and now Racing Louisville FC.
Nadim has scored over 200 goals during her soccer career and helped bring club championships to the Thorns in 2017 and PSG in 2021.
While scoring goals all her life, there was one she had yet to achieve: graduating medical school.
She finally finished a journey that began 10 years ago when she graduated from Aarhus University in Denmark last month with a medical degree, focusing on reconstructive surgery.
“I feel I play soccer or football for myself,” she said. “It’s my hobby. I enjoy it. But I wanted to do something more than that. I wanted to have an impact.”
Over the past decade, the process of balancing her professional athletic career for club and country with medical school was grueling.
“I did ask myself the question: Why am I doing this? What’s the point?” she said.
Yet she never backed down.
“You have to remember why you started this journey,” she said. “And you have to envision the goals you set yourself, the light at the end of the tunnel. And that’s what keeps me motivated.”
When her soccer career eventually ends, Nadim said she would like to join Doctors Without Borders. But whatever she does next, she will never sever her relationship with the sport that changed her life.
“I always want to be connected to football in a certain way because I think it’s a powerful game,” she said. “I want to be in a position where you actually are going to have an impact on other people’s lives and help people because I know how it is to receive the help.”
“And I know how much it means when you’re in need, and someone actually does something for you,” she said.
She said she hopes to one day “bring this beautiful game around the corners of the world where people do not have access to it yet.”
“Particularly girls, unfortunately, who are not allowed to play,” she said.
Nadim, who is fluent in nine languages, was appointed a UNESCO Champion for girls and women’s education in 2019.
Since Afghanistan fell again to Taliban rule in August, there’s been a documented effort to evacuate women playing sports from the country.
Nadim was one of the 3,525 Afghan refugees who sought asylum in Denmark in 2000, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. A total of 86,201 Afghan refugees have sought asylum there from 2000 to 2021.