Soccer Star Nadia Nadim's Remarkable Journey From Afghanistan to New Jersey - NBC New York
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Soccer Star Nadia Nadim's Remarkable Journey From Afghanistan to New Jersey

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    NEWSLETTERS

    NJ Soccer Star's Escape from Afghanistan

    One of the world's best professional women's soccer players in this weekend's Women World Cup lives in New Jersey -- and narrowly escaped a much different life. Nadia Nadim's father secretly taught her to play soccer until he was executed by the Taliban. She, her mother and sisters fled Afghanistan. John Chandler has her story. (Published Wednesday, June 3, 2015)

    Nadia Nadim sits at the dining room table of the New Jersey home she shares with her Sky Blue FC teammates, quietly studying. But it’s not a soccer playbook the star striker thumbs through.

    It’s something called "Medicinsk Kompendium Lommebog," a medical handbook written in Danish, one of five languages she speaks.

    "Five and a half, really," Nadim quickly corrects. Her French is admittedly a little rough these days. English, German, Persian and Urdu round out her list of languages, and Nadim is likely to use any one of them in a text back to her family and friends in Denmark.

    She has a lot on her plate. When not busy scoring goals -- seven in her first six games with Sky Blue FC -- the 27-year-old is a dedicated medical school student with plans to become a plastic surgeon. She is nearing the end of her 6-year program at Aarhus University back in Denmark.

    "Sometimes I'm like, 'Why am I doing this?'" she says of the endless hours of studying and soccer. But then she explains that the ability to save lives is something she feels strongly about, perhaps because of so many along the way who had a role in saving hers.

    Leaving Afghanistan

    Nadim remembers the day her father first handed her a soccer ball. She and her four sisters played dodgeball at first, eventually learning to kick the ball around within the secrecy of the walls that surrounded the family’s home in Kabul. Rabani Nadim was really into sports, but the father of five girls was also well aware that young women playing soccer was just not acceptable in 1990s Afghanistan.

    He was a general in the Afghan army. And then one day, he was gone.

    Nadia was 10 years old when she learned the Taliban had executed her father. Her mother, Hamida Nadim, knew they could not stay in Kabul.

    "I can't even imagine that – we probably wouldn't be alive," says Nadim. "My mom and five girls in the family? That is hard to live in Afghanistan."

    So they fled, first to Pakistan and then to Italy. Eventually, they arrived in Denmark, not speaking a word of Danish. While her mother worried about logistics like passports, schools and housing, Nadim used soccer to fend off the fear that accompanied their journey.

    "We used to live in this refugee camp beside a soccer club with all these fields. I knew we were safe. We had tons of balls and all the kids were the same age," she said.

    She had soccer, but she missed her father.

    "There are moments when you see other people with families and you'll be like, 'I wish my dad was here,'" she said.

    Jersey Shore

    The big surfboard lying on the front porch of the yellow cape belongs to Nadim. She is somewhat obsessed with the beaches of New Jersey, and talks a little faster as she explains how determined she is to master surfing, as if she has time to learn anything else in between soccer and studying.

    The Jersey Shore feels a little like home in Aarhus, Denmark. That was a big reason why she returned to Sky Blue FC, after lighting up the league with seven goals in six games last August while on loan from her team in Denmark.

    Sky Blue FC and the National Women’s Soccer League are loaded with players who later this week will suit up for their respective national teams in the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Nadim just missed the roster – “next time,” she laments – but is unquestionably a star in the NWSL. She lives for the pressure that comes with that territory.

    "I kind of like the pressure," says Nadim, admitting she often catches herself lying in bed wondering how all this happened.

    "I'm grateful I'm here and alive. And playing soccer, which I love."  

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