Refugee centers are often squalid, desperate places, timeless purgatories for people stuck between a horrific past and an uncertain future.
For a lucky few, however, they can be life-changing places, where hope pushes out despair and light breaks through the darkness. At least that’s how it was for Nadia Nadim, who fled Afghanistan after the Taliban killed her father only to find salvation with a soccer ball in rural Denmark.
“I’m really grateful to have gotten a second chance to restart my life,” she said “and kind of have all the opportunities I wanted to have.”
Decidedly different opportunities than she would have had under the Taliban, which banned females from participating in numerous activities, including studying, working and sports. So it wasn’t until Nadim, then 12, got to Denmark that she discovered soccer.
It didn’t take long for her to also discover she was really good at it.
“From there, it went really fast. I kind of got obsessed with the game and my obsession led me to here,” she said by phone from Oregon, where last month she helped lead the Portland Thorns to their second National Women’s Soccer League title. A season earlier she had led the team in goals.
“I played with everything that you can kick. That’s what made me fall in love with the game. We could not really speak the language and we didn’t have the same clothes as other kids. But no one really cared when we were playing.”
Yet, if not for a strange series of events — some frightful, some fortuitous — Nadim never would have found the game that changed her life. The first came when her father, a general in the Afghan army, was summoned to a meeting with the Taliban.
He never returned. Six months later her mother learned her husband had been taken into the desert and executed.
Life under the Taliban would have been impossible for a family of six females. So Nadim’s mother plotted their escape to neighboring Pakistan, where they used forged passports to board a flight to Italy. From there they clambered aboard a cargo truck they were told would take them to England.
Days later the truck stopped in the cold of night and they were ordered to leave without explanation. At daybreak they found a man walking his dog and asked, in halting English, if they were in England.
“No,” he said. “Randers. In Denmark.”
Many from the truck were bustled away to a refugee center until the Danes could figure out what to do with them. And while they were waiting, Nadim and her sisters played soccer.
A nearby club eventually offered her and two sisters tryouts, then spots on the roster. When her family left the refugee center for an apartment, another team bought them bus passes to get them to the training center. With proper coaching, Nadim improved rapidly, passing through four teams on her way up the Danish soccer ladder.
While still a teenager she applied for citizenship and eight years after leaving Afghanistan, she became a Dane. When she made her debut for Denmark against the U.S. in the 2009 Algarve Cup, she became the first naturalized player — male or female — to earn an international cap for the country.
She has 74 caps since then and ranks 10th in Danish history with 22 goals.
Asked whether she thinks about how different her life would have been if her mother hadn’t had the courage to leave Afghanistan, Nadim, 29, answers quickly.
“Yeah, 100%,” she said. “We probably wouldn’t be alive because the Taliban made it so hard for women. It was an unfortunate event that my dad died and that there was a war. But I do believe in fate.
“That was probably the path I had to take.”
And it’s a path that has taken her places she never could have reached from home.
Unable to study in her native country, Nadim spent six years in a Danish medical school and wants to be a reconstructive surgeon. Unable to speak up under the Taliban, Nadim can now speak out in seven languages.
“Yeah, I’m pretty smart,” she said. “I do believe women should have equal rights and the same opportunities as men. How can you exclude 50% of the society? That’s insane.
“I hope there’s more [women] showing that, as a female, you can do whatever men can. And set an example.”
That’s exactly what Nadim has become in Afghanistan where, after the fall of the Taliban government, women can now study, run for political office and play soccer. Two years ago a woman even finished a marathon there, running down roads on which she once wouldn’t have been allowed to stand.
“She is a role model for many young Afghan girls, especially football players,” said Shafic Gawhari, chief executive of the group that runs the Afghan Premier League. “All successful Afghan athletes and artists living overseas are followed by tens of thousands of Afghan youths.”
They’ll have to keep following Nadim from afar because even though Afghanistan is changing, her family is settled and comfortable in Denmark. And 17 years after setting out for England, Nadim has finally arrived there, leaving Portland to join Manchester City of the Women’s Super League.
“I think I’ve kind of proven with my life and my actions that no matter what you’ve been through and what obstacles life puts in front of you, if you keep working hard enough and believe in yourself everything can be overcome,” she said.
Asked what her father would think of the life she has led, Nadim paused, then answered quietly.