The refugee who is making a difference

As a child, Nadia Nadim had to flee the Taliban in Afghanistan. Now at home playing for Manchester City, and studying for a degree in medicine, she is a role model for overcoming adversity as well as contributing to society. She tells The Mixed Zone’s Katie Whyatt her inspiring story

It makes Nadia Nadim feel sad. She is talking about the portrayal of refugees in the media.  The Manchester City forward should know: she was one herself, eighteen years ago. She knows that words can hurt. “It’s not a situation anyone wants to be in,” she says. “You wouldn’t do it voluntarily. It’s not a choice. You’re forced into it.”

She pauses. “I get really upset when I see the negativity. I know there are bad people in every layer of society, and you can’t really find 100 per cent good people. I don’t like the fact one or two per cent of the refugees who represent [them all] are not good people. Filling up so much of the space. That’s hurtful.

“Everyone deserves a second chance. Especially because you don’t really choose this life – it chooses you. I’m really grateful that I got a second chance and I think I’m repaying it wherever I go. I’m making Denmark proud.”

Nadim is speaking from Manchester City’s imposing Etihad Campus. It is 4,359 miles from her native Herat in Afghanistan. She arrived in Manchester in January this year, via America and, more than a decade earlier, Denmark. She was 12 when she climbed down from the cargo truck in Scandinavia with her mother and four sisters. They were fleeing. When she was ten, the Taliban had summoned her father Rabani, a general in the Afghan army, to a meeting. He never came home. Later, they learnt that the Taliban had murdered him. His body was never found.

Nadim was eight when the Taliban assumed control of Afghanistan. Change was immediate. Sports were banned. Girls over eight were prohibited from attending school. Women were not allowed to work or venture out in public unaccompanied. There was violence. With forged Pakistani passports, the Nadims fled for London. They left Kabul, flew to Italy and rode in the cargo truck for 50 hours before being turfed out. They thought they were in England. A dog-walker told them they were in Denmark.

They found a police station and requested political asylum. They lived in a refugee camp while their case was assessed. It was six months before they were told they had been successful. Nadia didn’t mind the wait. She was safe, and free, and could once more have the one thing denied her: a childhood. Next to the refugee camp was the training ground of the local football team, Gug Boldklub. It was there, after weeks peering from the undergrowth every day to watch, that she played the game “for real” for the first time.

She remembers: “It was a like a light got switched on inside me. I was like, ‘This is amazing, this feeling’. I got obsessed with it. I still have that obsession. As soon as I’m playing, I forget everything around me.”

Back then, football meant a lot to her. “I’ve been through situations that I know no one should go through. Football helped me. It’s given me a lot of joy. I know how beautiful the game is and how much you can get out of it. That’s the reason I love it so much.”

Through football, life has come full circle. Nadim is an ambassador for the football project From Foot To School, which, she says, “tries to help kids in Afghanistan who are begging on streets, working on streets, to have an education”. She is an ambassador, too, for Football Fountain, which offers deprived children “experiences that are so normal for a lot of other kids. Summer vacation, we’ll take them to a game. We try to make arrangements for them. At a really young age, I knew the power of football. It’s amazing that you can use sport to change people’s views, to make a difference.

“And I get touched or interested and want to help when it’s kids. Because they don’t really have a choice, you know? If you’re seven, eight years old, and you’re born in that situation, it’s hard to make a change. You can’t do that. Sometimes, you need a tiny bit of help. The kids who have nothing, or have experienced a lot of stuff, well, I was in the same situation. I hope some other kids have the opportunity to experience the joy I gained.”

As she grew up, Nadim found obstacles placed in her way because she was a girl. “In the areas that we used to live, there weren’t any girls playing football. And as an Afghan Muslim girl with culture and tradition playing a huge role, it was always, like, ‘When you’re 18, 19, you need to start think about getting engaged. Around 20, 21, you get married, and then you have kids’. The only thing I was supposed to do was to prepare for that, to know how to cook and how to be a housewife.

“The obstacles were, like, I could easily come back from training during the day and my mum would be sitting with her friends, and her friends wouldn’t understand why my mum would let me play. My mum understood, but she was, like, ‘Nadia, not everyone understands’.

“There were times I had to hide that I was playing with boys because they would think I was doing other stuff. I’ve been a part to change that. I remember staying in this area with an organisation trying to give kids who didn’t go to football the chance to start playing. It got really huge, and then some girls wanted to join the club. Going from me playing street football with the boys, to suddenly coming back and seeing kids – boys, girls, everyone – running around, some girls with the scarf on their head … I thought that was one of the proudest moments of my life.

“That’s where I realised how important, or how big a power the game has. You can actually change real-life problems and perceptions. Since then, I’ve taken that with me. I’ve shown people that it doesn’t matter what you are – girl, boy, background, whatever. As long as you love the game, anything’s possible.”

In Afghanistan, the Taliban government fell in 2001. Women can now study and run for political office, but the legacy of their five-year occupation still remains. However, the country has a women’s team now; they are 106th in Fifa’s world rankings.

“It’s really hard still,” Nadim says, “because the perception, the mindset, everything, it’s kind of hard for women to be athletes there in general. It takes time and it takes an effort. The more progress you see in the world, and in women’s football, that’s going to have an impact on countries like Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan.”

Now she is playing for Manchester City. She admits their season was, “OK – not the way I wanted it to go”. Nick Cushing’s side lost their FA Cup semi-final to eventual winners Chelsea, who also completed the double by taking the WSL 1 title. City were also knocked out of the Champions League at the semi-final stage by Lyon, and had to wait until the final weekend of the season to secure their Champions League spot for next season. “I came here because I wanted to win trophies,” she says, “but I’ve grown as a human being. But I’m not used to losing important games. I’ve learnt different sides of myself.”

She likes living in the centre of Manchester. The food, the northern humour. “I’m really surprised how funny and easy it’s been to connect with the girls.” And with the club, of course. “It’s one city, one team. I really love that. The ambitions are so high. It gives you the chance to compete on an equal level. I hope the rest of the football world will take that.”

Once retired, she wants “to be sitting in some kind of commission, like Fifa, Uefa, the Danish Federation”. A career as a reconstructive surgeon looms: helping people recover from life-changing injuries. She has juggled a full-time career in football with studying for a medical degree at Aarhus University in Denmark.

“As a human being, I wanted to be in a situation where I can give back,” she says. “I play football because I love it. I do it for myself. I can change a lot of stuff with it, but I want to contribute to society in a different way. I feel I have the capacity. Becoming a doctor was a logical choice. I know that I’m going to be in a situation where I can make a huge impact on a lot of people’s lives, and that makes me happy.”

Returning to the subject of refugees, the emotion in her voice is audible. “If you give people a chance, you might get something in return,” she says. “They might help you help the society, help you make a difference. I feel honoured to be in a situation where I can use my platform, and use sport to put light on some of the situations that people are in. I hope that continues. We can step out of more boundaries with sport.”

Nadia Nadim was a finalist in the Sporting Role Model category at the Women’s Sport Trust #BeAGameChanger Awards


Katie WhyattKatie’s latest articles

If you enjoyed this, subscribe to the mixed zone and get every new article straight to your inbox.

Women’s Sport Trust want to thank our partner Getty Images for some of the imagery of women in sport used on this site. Click here to view the editorial curation featuring the world’s top sportswomen in action and here to learn more about our partnership with Getty Images.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.