The return of the Taliban

Nadia Nadim: From fleeing the Taliban to becoming a football star

The footballer fell in love with the sport in the refugee camps in Denmark

4 min
Nadia Nadim, football player who fled Afghanistan

BarcelonaThe war in Afghanistan has shattered many hopes. Thousands of people, over the years, have been forced to leave home, to leave their family and friends behind to save their lives. Many have chosen Europe as their destination, not knowing what the future holds, with the dream of finding safety. The road that awaits them will be hard, costly and uncertain. Some don't make it anywhere, others are forced to return to their country and some do find a way to start again. The latter is the case of Nadia Nadim, Danish national team player and former PSG and Manchester City player.

"At the end of the 1990s, when I was a child, the Taliban took Kabul, the capital, and gained control of the country. My father, Rabani Kan, was a general in the Afghan National Army and a very influential man. So our family - me, my four sisters and my mother - lived in a gated apartment complex near where he worked. No one could get in or out without going through a security check. It was like a bubble where we felt protected," the footballer recounted in an article in The Players Tribune. In 2000, her father left home to meet with one of the government ministers, but never returned

"For a long time I had no idea what was going on. I was only 12 years old. When your life is in danger, no one takes the time to sit down with the children and explain things to them. Soon I started to see the panic on people's faces: my mother, my aunts.... My father's life was in danger. This fear, this uncertainty, stayed with me for a long time. Even years later, when we learned that he had been executed, I didn't believe that anything had happened to him," Nadim recalls, remembering the moment when her life changed forever.

After her father's disappearance, her mother made the decision to flee the country and go to London. First she sold two houses, the car and the jewellery and, with the money and in total secrecy, prepared her daughters to leave. "Don't go out. Don't explain it to anyone. If people find out, we are in danger," the mother asked little Nadia. With two sports backpacks full of clothes, in the middle of the night they boarded a four-by-four to Karachi, Pakistan, where a tiny apartment awaited them where they could hide. There, the most absolute nothingness. Without internet, telephones or contact with the outside world, news arrived in dribs and drabs. After a first frustrated attempt, a month after arriving in the neighbouring country, they were able to continue their journey to Europe.

The uncertainty was suffocating

With new passports and dressed in Pakistani clothes ("On paper, we were Pakistanis at the time," she recalls) they made their way to the airport. "You know in the movies like Ocean's thirteen where you have a team and they all walk in together, and none of them say anything, but everybody knows what's going on? It's like that. The people at the airport know what's going on, but nobody does anything because they've been paid a lot of money not to," says Nadim, who flew to Milan with her mother and sister

In the Italian city they went straight to a dark and dirty apartment, with windows at ground level. They spent two days without moving. On the third day, an old car brought them to a truck parking lot, where they were made to run into a cargo container. The days went by and, immersed in the darkness and eating and drinking the essential food and drink due to the lack of a toilet, they arrived at an open field. The driver opened the door and forced them to get out. Without much explanation he drove off and left the Nadim family wandering along the road, not knowing if they had reached their destination

Nadia Nadim with the Danish national team jersey.

It didn't take them long to realize that they had arrived in Randers, a city in Denmark. "We were shocked, but in the end nobody cared. "Fuck it, we're safe," we thought. We found a police station. There an officer sat down with my mother to check all our documents," says the footballer. From there they went to Sandholm, the main reception station for asylum seekers in Denmark: a long journey through the refugee camps awaited them. They spent two months at their first destination and then were transferred near Aalborg, far from the stacked bunk beds, with their own rooms and a shared kitchen. A dream after all they had experienced in the prior weeks.

"The camp was safe and open. There were families, children our age. We spent our days in a language school and then we met in a small grass field, we played hide and seek and also football with two broken goals," says Nadim. She fell in love with football there. As the only way to escape the harsh reality she had to live, sport allowed her to escape the world. While waiting for the letter that would seal her future, Nadim learned to pass, dribble and shoot. Seven months later, the decision came: "You can stay in Denmark. "And that's how my new chapter began. That's how I got my life," she says

Nadia Nadim when she was at PSG.

With football at the centre of her life, Nadim has been growing. As an integration tool, football saved her from the difficulties of adapting and led her to a bright future as a star at big clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City. Nadim now plays for Racing Louisville FC in the United States, but she will never forget where she comes from. "Some people wonder why refugees come to their country. Let's get this straight: no one would voluntarily leave their home, their friends, their loved ones, to go somewhere where they might not be accepted. Who would do it voluntarily? No one would! They are forced to do it. Some are literally fleeing the war!"