Every day, the girl who wasn't supposed to play crept a little closer to the action. First to the perimeter of the soccer facility. Next to the low-slung fence surrounding the field. Then to the top of the fence, the better to sit and watch the local kids practice, amazed that girls could participate. She even started returning stray balls.
Soon enough, 12-year-old Nadia Nadim and her new friends at the refugee camp in Denmark–both girls and boys, a concept which was still very new for her–discovered that the bushes lining the soccer field next door were flush with abandoned balls. The boys and girls collected as many balls as they could, and then started playing on the field when the local children weren't using it.
Eventually, Nadim mustered the courage to ask the coach of the girls' team if she could play, a decision that unwittingly put her on a path to becoming one of the best strikers in the world.
Long before Nadim starred for Sky Blue FC in the National Women's Soccer League and brought Denmark to the cusp of qualifying for this summer's Women's World Cup, she kicked her first soccer ball in the unlikeliest of locations: the walled garden of her childhood home in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Her father, Rabani, was a progressive man. The Taliban had seized control over the country in the fall of 1996, declaring Afghanistan an Islamic state and immediately banning women from employment; education; venturing outside the house without male supervision; laughing loudly; wearing anything white or shoes that made noise; being seen in public uncovered by a burqa; and, of course, playing sports.
A former field hockey player and a big soccer fan, Rabani was determined to play with his girls, Nadia and her four sisters. He didn't do it to make some political point. Afghanistan once had been a fairly moderate country—in 1978, the then-ruling Communist party had decreed equality between the sexes.
But a few years into the Taliban's brutal rule, Rabani, who was a prominent general in the Afghan army, was summoned to a meeting with the regime, which gave no reason for summoning him. He never returned home. His family learned six months later that he'd been executed in the desert the following day, presumably in some kind of purge.
Hamida, Rabani's wife, understood that Afghanistan was no longer a viable place to live—not for a woman who believed in her rights and had raised her daughters to think the same way. So she gathered her girls and fled over the porous border with Pakistan. There, they got their hands on false passports and booked a flight to Italy. Nadia and her sisters were told to act Pakistani and speak only in Urdu, which they didn't know very well. Once they arrived in Italy, smugglers would take them to London, where they had extended family.
The journey in the back of the truck on Easter morning in 2000 is seared into Nadia's memory. It was long, cold and dark. Dirty and anxious. They and all the other refugees were supposed to piss and shit in a bucket in the corner. The cloth walls weren't insulated and flapped in the wind. The ride was bouncy. "We were hopeful," Nadim recalls. "But we were scared, because it wasn't a fun situation to be in as a kid. And knowing that you have left everything behind you, and you don't know what's expecting you." But Hamida said everything would be fine. And Nadia was still young enough to believe her mother when she said she would keep them safe.
When the truck finally stopped in the dead of night and told everybody to get off and disperse, their surroundings didn't much look like London. The Nadims wandered around, until, at daybreak, they encountered a man walking his dog. In her rudimentary English, Hamida asked him them where they were.
"Randers," he said. "In Denmark."
On a blustery spring morning on the Jersey Shore, Nadim is one of the few Sky Blue FC players in a T-shirt and shorts. Her socks, as always, are pulled just over her knees—a touch of soccer flair. Her colorful headbands, which she makes herself, hold back her ample hair. She chases after defenders during drills, hacking away at them in an effort to win the ball back. She's a graceful attacker. Instinctive. But she pushes hard. So hard, in fact, that at one point, she pulls a groin muscle challenging a defender. This ends her practice. Sky Blue isn't about to put its best player at risk.
Nadim came over from her Danish club Fortuna Hjørring in July of last year, towards the end of the National Women's Soccer League season. In just six games, she scored seven goals and delivered three assists, becoming a sensation and nearly dragging Sky Blue into the playoffs by herself. She was the league's player of the month for August. So it was no surprise that the team made her return its offseason priority. Upon bringing her back, she scored a goal in their season opener, a 1-0 upset of FC Kansas. Since then, Sky Blue has struggled, going winless in seven games. All year long, the team has tallied a pitiful six goals. But Nadim scored two of those, and assisted on another two.
"You don't see that many forwards in the women's game who have such an efficiency of scoring," says Sky Blue head coach Jim Gabarra. "It doesn't take a lot of chances for her to score."
"Everybody loves her," adds teammate and roommate Lindsi Cutshall. "As a person and as a player, we have so much respect for her. She's come in and made a statement. She contributes so much with her hard work on and off the field and her perspective of life."
As the local media has gotten wind of Nadim's story, tipped off by her scoring record and quick ascent to becoming one of the 3-year-old league's budding stars, she's had write-ups in the New York Times and Daily News and the Newark Star-Ledger. But, speaking after practice between nibbles of a Nature Valley bar, the attention, and having to repeat her story again and again, is clearly beginning to bore her.
"I don't think she likes all these stories being written about her," says Katy Freels, who also shares a house and uniform with Nadia. She doesn't hide her past, exactly. But she doesn't broadcast it either. She'd just rather the conversation be about the team.
"She never seeks out pity or says, 'You don't know what I've been through,'" says Freels. "She only brings it up when we ask her about it."
Instead, Nadim would rather go to movies, listen to hip-hop or play Uno. She likes to dance, trying out new moves. "Can she always pull it off? Maybe not," says Cutshall. "But she's never going to stop trying. Whether it's in public or at our house."
"She's kind of got a loud personality, but she's a lot of fun," Freels adds. "She doesn't seem to be affected by her past much at all. She's embraced it completely. I don't even think I've noticed her having a bad day. It's pretty remarkable, considering her story and where she's been. Her life story has just allowed her to carry such confidence."
Nadim just isn't one for looking back. There's a lot of ugliness back there. But in front of her, there's the life of a professional athlete, which, at age 27, has a lot of time left on it yet. So why dwell on past hurt? "She's a very positive person and really tries to see the good in everything," says Cutshall. "Whether it's her life or individuals or herself."
Nadim is fluent in five languages now: Danish, English, German, Dari and Urdu. But when she arrived with her family at the refugee camp, where they waited as Denmark processed their asylum claim, she couldn't communicate with the other kids. So they communicated with gestures. And they communicated with their feet, playing soccer with an old dodge ball. For the first time, she played with boys. "It was a lot different," Nadim remembers. "But I was just making new friends."
Nadim and other refugee children had Danish and English lessons and school all morning. In the afternoons, they were free. That's when they discovered the soccer club next door. Watching the boys' and girls' teams practice was their entertainment. The coach eventually allowed Nadia to try out even though she didn't have cleats. He was sufficiently impressed to ask her to come to the next practice session, jotting down a day and time on a scrap of paper and pointing to it.
Nadia's mom took her to a second-hand store and bought her an ancient pair of soccer cleats. She remembers how stiff the leather had gotten. But she was delighted all the same. At her first game, she was put in defense. She scored three goals. She wasn't a defender anymore after that.
Soon enough, the Nadims were granted asylum for an initial 3-year period, put on public assistance and enrolled in school, where Nadia impressed with her soccer skills on the playground. Scoring goals is an easy way to get ahead in life. Through soccer, she made Denmark her home. "It helped me to integrate into society, definitely," she says.
Once she was playing organized soccer, it didn't take long for Nadim to rocket to the top of Denmark's women's game. By the time she was 18, the Danish soccer federation requested a waiver from FIFA for her to represent its national team. She'd only been granted her citizenship a year earlier—and five years of holding the nationality were required, since she was Afghan by birth—but was granted her eligibility. The rationale? The rule was instituted to prevent players from naturalizing to different countries just to represent their national teams. Nadim was no soccer mercenary.
Now, she could begin repaying the country that took in her grateful family. Denmark, however, wasn't universally appreciative of her contributions. Like much of Europe, the Danes have an uneasy relationship with immigrants. An estimated 90 percent of the country's citizens have Danish origins, which is to say that they're unaccustomed to new ethnicities making a home in their country. There are the usual twitches and spasms of fear and xenophobia, especially when the economy slumps and politics slant predictably to the right. But Nadim doesn't hold a country accountable for the actions of a few "idiots" who aren't representative of the entire population. "I've never experienced it [from Denmark] as a country, more like from individual persons," she says of the racism she encountered.
She never wore a hijab, but her skin was darker back then. Somehow, it got lighter in Denmark. When she started school, most of the kids were nice enough. But some kids said things. So she'd dish it right back. At games, adults sometimes got nasty, lobbing racist insults about her skin color from the stands. "Parents, when we used to play soccer as a kid—because I was decent, better than their kids—I sometimes could hear them say something," Nadim says. "But it never bothered me. I never felt as a country I wasn't welcomed."
She gets animated in re-telling it though. "Because I'm a person that would speak my mind and say, 'You, shut the fuck up. Do your thing; I'll do my thing. Yeah?'"
Nadim breaks from her rant and looks at me sheepishly. "Sorry," she says with a grimace.
She realizes she just swore again, mid-interview, which she is wont to do. Nadim can be unabashedly profane. She's genuine like that. The memo that elite female soccer players in America are supposed to be unimpeachable role models doesn't seem to have quite reached her. She doesn't entirely grasp that they're all supposed to be spotless women-girls with their pony tails and hair bands just so, to reach the impossible standards expected of some imagined constituency consisting of "all the little girls out there."
Nadim talks, she gets excited, she begins talking quicker, and some "fucks" slip in there. She is, frankly, all the more likable for it.
The girl who wasn't allowed to go to school under the Taliban is three semesters from being a doctor. After that, Nadim wants to specialize in plastic surgery. Combining her medical school studies at Aarhus University with professional soccer doesn't leave time for much else. That's why Nadim arrived stateside so late last season—she was finishing up a semester. This year, she's taking a break from school to focus on soccer.
Nadia and her sisters are making the most of the opportunities afforded them. Her oldest sister is also studying medicine. Her first younger sister is in a very competitive program to become a pilot. "That's sick," says Nadia. The fourth is in a nurse school and the youngest, who is 17, is toying with the idea of going to medical school as well.
While she's back in New Jersey, Nadia hopes to intern with a local plastic surgeon. She can't afford to fall behind. The country only allows two new doctors a year into her preferred specialization in Denmark. She doesn't want to just do nose jobs and face-lifts. She wants to help people who really need plastic surgery, who have been disfigured by accidents or disease. She's gotten so much help in her life; she'd like to pay it forward.
The creativity and variety of plastic surgery also appeals to her. "Let's say you have to reconstruct a face because you have a tumor removed and half the face [is gone]," she explains. "You have to use bones, muscles from everywhere." You have to problem-solve. Like a striker problem-solves. Like a refugee problem-solves.
To say that soccer is Nadim's last connection to her father would be to belabor the narrative. "I've never thought about it like that," she says. "Neither is it therapy for me. I don't think so. In my head, it's just fine."
She does it for the love of it. "I'm naturally happy on the pitch," she says. "It sounds cliché, but it's true."
There isn't much money in the NWSL. Unless you're on a national team payroll for the United States, Mexico or Canada—which Nadim obviously isn't—salaries start at just $6,000, and top out at $37,800 . "For me, it's not about the money," she says. "It's never been about the money. I don't care about the money, because I'm going to make tons of it when I'm a plastic surgeon. It's about the experience and having fun."
Soccer is, however, a symbol and manifestation of the freedom she found in Denmark. Even if she doesn't dwell on it, her life is a giant "fuck you" to the Taliban, a monument of defiance to repression. Nadim agrees. "I'm actually doing all the stuff you're not supposed to do. Because I don't know why you're not supposed to do that. I don't understand that. Why? What is the reason? Coming to a place where you have all those opportunities, you can work, you can go to school, you can play soccer, whatever you want, I'm like, Why not? Soccer makes me happy, it's healthy, why shouldn't I play?"
Everything she wasn't supposed to do she does in the extreme. She doesn't just play sports, she's a professional athlete. She isn't just going to school, she's going to be a surgeon. She was supposed to live a small and humble life, in the shadow and wake of some husband. But she's unshakably confident. She broadcasts her social life and her adventures on Instagram.
Fuck you, Taliban. "You're supposed to be a part of something else," she says of the plight of women under that since-banished regime. "You cannot be an individual in Afghanistan, because as a woman you weren't enough. And that's just stupid and wrong. I'm just showing that everything is possible. No matter who you are, if you have a disability or you're a woman, if you want it, you can do it."
Seven years ago, Nadim and a friend started a youth soccer club in their old, disadvantaged neighborhood in Denmark. "A lot of the kids in our area, they don't have the financial support from their families to go do sports," she says. "We thought if we get them interested in sports they probably wouldn't get interested in criminal stuff. All these young kids can come and just play soccer. I know how big a role sports can play in your life."
The club started with a half dozen kids and quickly grew to more than 200. So Nadim and her friend found sponsors. They gathered the resources to equip the kids. One of the teams won an international tournament in Italy and the club began garnering media attention, bringing in more financial backing. They found the money to transport the kids to and from practices and games. The city got behind it.
A few years in, a girls' team started up as well.
Not even the Taliban's misguided fanaticism could turn Nadim off her faith. She's still devout. She tries to fast for Ramadan, although it's hard in her line of work. "I'm a Muslim," she says. "I'm 100 percent Muslim. I believe. I pray. But religion is something for yourself." She just doesn't understand the radicalized mentality. She believes in having a voice.
She doesn't think she's Westernized, because she doesn't feel like she's stopped being true to herself. But she hasn't been back to Afghanistan. Her mother has. Her older sister is going back this summer to do a residency at a hospital, making their mom nervous. She asked if Nadia could find her someplace to intern in Jersey instead. "I said, 'Yo! Mom! Chill!'" Nadia recalls.
But things in their native country are still chaotic. The Americans have withdrawn and the Taliban has resumed control of parts of the country. "I'd love to go back and see how everything is but I could not imagine myself living there," she says. "It would be hard. If you see me, my mentality is different and things are going to be extremely hard for me to be there. If someone tells me, 'You're not allowed to do that,' I'll do it [anyway]. The extremists wouldn't tolerate or understand that."
When we talk after practice, it's barely 50 degrees out, but Nadim is already thinking of the next way to leverage her freedom. She recently went to a store to check out surfboards. She plans on buying one and charging the frigid waves of New Jersey—after she gets a wetsuit as well. "I'm gonna do that. I'm gonna be a pro surfer for 6 months," she jokes.
Then, to her obvious relief, our interview is over. She smiles a broad smile and shakes my hand. She reaches into her bag and pulls out a pair of big, yellow and blue headphones. I compliment her on them. "They're colorful," she says. "Just like me."