You know, sometimes it breaks my heart to think about what we have become as humans.
I know some people will criticise me for talking about this. They’ll say that athletes should stick to sports ’cause we’re not politicians or whatever. But I think that’s bullshit. Everyone — everyone — has a responsibility to try to improve the lives of other people.
And because of my story — the execution of my father, the escape from Afghanistan — I feel my responsibility is even bigger.
Right now everyone is talking about the Black Lives Matter protests and the murder of George Floyd, and that is so important. I love seeing people out on the streets, raising their fists, battling racial injustice. I hope this can lead to real change. But there is another humanitarian crisis in this world that I want to make sure we don’t forget. A huge number of refugees have nowhere to live, nowhere to go, nothing to eat. Many are denied entry to Europe. Some are given entry, but then are treated with suspicion and prejudice. Many of us here COULD help out … but instead we sit and do nothing. And it makes me super sad.
Some people ask why all these refugees are coming into their country. Let’s get this straight: NO ONE would voluntarily leave their home — their houses, their friends, their loved ones — to go somewhere where they might not even be accepted. Who would do that voluntarily?! NO ONE! They are forced to do that. Some are literally fleeing WAR.Because of my story — the execution of my father, the escape from Afghanistan — I feel my responsibility is even bigger.
Some people will go, “Yeah, but why don’t they just stay and fight?”
But if you say that, you haven’t been in any real danger. You remember when COVID-19 broke out and everyone was running to the supermarket to buy toilet paper as if the world was going to end? That’s probably like 0.0001% of the danger that some of these refugees have been through.
Although I’m encouraged by the Black Lives Matter protests, I still feel that too many people have become numb to what’s going on in certain parts of the world. Take one of them aid campaigns about Africa, where children are suffering from hunger. People see it, in the literal sense, but they don’t really see it. You know? But then let’s say that you live in Denmark, where I arrived when I was 12, or in any other privileged country. If two Danes die or get killed in Africa or Syria or wherever, that’s suddenly big news. You’re like, “Oh my God. They were Danish!!”
I want to help people in Europe relate better to those parts of the world. That’s the reason I’m so involved with charities and NGOs. Most people in Denmark know me, so if I go to Kenya and they see me there, they are like, “Oh, there’s Nadia.” And then they see what’s going on, and they go, “Oh my God, look! These guys are suffering!”
And that’s kinda what I want to do with this article. If you haven’t seen me on television, if you don’t know my story, if you don’t know what it’s like to run away from war (and, by God, I hope you don’t) — fasten your seatbelt.
This isn’t a pleasant journey, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else.
But it takes place in a part of the world in which many refugees are living right now.
In one way this story isn’t actually representative of most refugees’ journeys. I was supposed to be one of the lucky ones. I lived in a “safe” area.
And yet my childhood was basically about avoiding stuff that was going to get me killed.
As you might know, Afghanistan has been in civil war for a long time. In the late 1990s, when I was a kid, the Taliban seized Kabul, the capital, and took control of the country. My dad, Rabani Khan, was a general in the Afghan National Army, and a very influential guy. So because of that, our family — me, my four sisters and my mother, Hamida — lived in a closed apartment complex in Kabul, near where he worked. No one could go in or out without going through a security check. It was like a bubble where we felt protected.
Courtesy of Nadia Nadim
We knew that if we left it, anything could happen. The Taliban didn’t allow women to go to school or to go out alone. There were a lot of people in the streets who wanted to kidnap us so that they could ask my dad for money. So we always obeyed orders. Always. In the house, yeah, of course, everyone was a rebel. But as soon as we got outside, we knew this was real stuff.
It’s pretty simple, really. When you’re a kid and someone tells you, “DO NOT GO PAST THIS LINE OR ELSE YOU’RE GONNA DIE,” you’re kinda like, O.K., cool. I’m gonna stay.
Our family was heavily influenced by Afghan culture. Social status is very important there — you want to show people that you’re doing well. So, for instance, if you have guests, even if you’re really poor, you’ll serve the best food you have. Also, kids are not supposed to talk during dinner. That’s bad manners. And our mum would only let us play outside after sunset, because otherwise we’d get dark skin. It’s true! Basically, dark skin means you’ve been outside working in the sun all day, and that’s what the poor kids do. Same thing if you’re skinny! If you’re fat then you’re having a good life and you’re healthy. And if you’re skinny, it’s like, “Oh, no! Poor you!”
It’s the kind of thinking that you had in Europe back in the Middle Ages, and that Afghanistan hasn’t really grown out of. So yeah, my mum was very affected by that culture. And she still is! Even now sometimes when she sees me and I have a tan — and I get dark really easily, which I LOVE because being tanned is awesome — she’ll be like, “OH, MY GOD! WHAT HAVE YOU BECOME?! WHY ARE YOU NOT USING SUNSCREEN?!?!” Hahaha!!
My mum was the one who used to care for us, because we did not see our dad very often. He was extremely busy. It was weird, because on the one side he was this military dude, but on the other side, when he was not too tired, he would play with us, and we could jump on him and act like the kids we were. He looked like a CIA agent or a KGB spy, you know? No, for real!! ’Cause he was like supersmart, super tall, super athletic. Sometimes when we woke up, we’d find him doing push-ups in front of the windows in the living room. When that wasn’t hard enough, he’d grab one of my younger sisters and put her on his back. Outside, we had this huuuge grass patch where he would do pull-ups on a pair of parallel bars. CIA agent. I’m telling you.
He was also super sporty. He used to play for the Afghan national field hockey team, and he loved football, too. We had this black-and-white-dotted ball, and I remember this one day when he discovered that we were playing dodgeball with it. He came over and was like, “No, no, no. You have to use your feet, dribble like this, pass like that.…” It feels like a hundred years ago now, but that is one of the few memories I still have from that time, and one that I’ll cherish forever.
To the world he was the big, important, influential GENERAL Rabani Khan.
To us he was just Padar. Daddy.
One day in 2000, he was driven away to meet with one of the ministers. The Taliban didn’t like people who had too much influence, and already a lot of people had started to disappear. And after my dad went to that meeting … well, he didn’t come back.
For a long time I had no idea what was going on. I was only 12 years old. I just knew my mum was very upset. What you have to understand is, when your life is in danger, no one takes the time to sit down with the kids — five of them in my mum’s case — and explain things. Just like at the dinner table, you don’t really have a say in anything. You just obey orders. But I knew something big had happened. Usually we would overhear the conversations the adults were having, like, “Oh, I saw this woman’s hand being chopped in the street because she was showing her hands.” It was the same thing now with my dad. My mum was like, “Oh, this is weird. He’s been gone for too long.”
Soon I began to really see the panic in people’s faces: My mum, my aunts … my dad’s life was in danger. That fear, that uncertainty, stayed with me for a long time. I think that’s the worst feeling you can experience in life. I don’t really care about danger, because you usually know what the danger is. Uncertainly, on the other hand….
What made it worse was that my dad was this James Bond kinda guy who could do anything, you know? And in my brain it just didn’t make sense. How could a guy like that disappear? Even years later, when we had heard that he had been executed, I didn’t believe anything had happened to him. I used to believe that I had seen him. Sometimes I thought, Ah, did he maybe just … leave us for someone else? I always felt like, He’s gonna come back, he’s gonna come back, he’s gonna come back….
Then one day someone told me, “I think it’s just a coping mechanism. This is how you get over people you have lost: You think you see them everywhere.”In my brain it just didn’t make sense. How could a guy like that disappear?
I was like, Oh shit.
I still get emotional talking about this. I don’t cry often but … yeah … it can still make me really upset….
Anyway … yeah … this was in 2000. My mum had to decide what to do next. And the only instinct that really mattered was survival. Everything in your body, the way you are built, fight or flight — everything is about one thing: How do I survive? And in the end my mum was like, “There’s no fucking way we’re staying here, because none of us is gonna stay alive.”
And so she sells everything she owns — the two houses, the apartment, the cars, the jewellery, everything — and then one day she tells us that we’re leaving the next night. She’s like, “Don’t go outside. Don’t tell anyone. If people find out, we’re gonna be in danger.” I grab two sports bags and stuff them with clothes. That night we get into a minivan and drive through the darkness for I don’t know how many hours. We get to Karachi, in Pakistan, where we settle into a tiny two-bedroom apartment and wait for good news. Every other day we’re visited by this fat, little Pakistani dude with a moustache, gold chains and the kind of white, traditional clothing you have in a lot of Islamic countries. He’s giving us updates on the situation, because at that point there’s no phones, no Internet, no nothing. One day he tells us he’s got four forged passports that fit our profiles, meaning that my mum and three of the five kids can go. She says no way.
About a month later he finally comes in with passports for everybody. The next morning all six of us get into his van, dressed in Pakistani clothing — on paper we’re now a Pakistani family. As we leave, my mum is like, “No one says a fucking word.” We get to the airport and this guy is walking in front of us, like … you know in the movies, like in Ocean’s Thirteen, where you have a crew working together and they’re all walking in, and none of them says anything, but everyone knows what’s going down? That’s how it is. People at the airport know what’s going on, but nobody does anything because they have received a lot of money for this. So we get through security, and we board the plane. (First time I ever sat on a plane. I was kinda excited, not gonna lie!)
Courtesy of Nadia Nadim
We land in Milan, Italy. We’re led to this grim basement apartment, the kind of place where the bottom half of the window is below ground level. We have two beds, a sleeping sofa, a filthy table, a toilet that is stuffed — it’s absolutely DISGUSTING — and a little television that’s showing ski jumping on Eurosport. The whole place is so rotten that we just sit in a corner, unable to sleep.
Two days later these two Eastern European-looking dudes in jeans and bomber jackets come into our apartment and say, “This is it.” These are the guys we’re dealing with now. They drive us off in this old car and stop near a parking area full of lorries. One of the guys says, “When I say so, you run to that truck.” And that’s what we do. We climb into the back of the truck, which begins to drive. For days we sit there in the darkness, listening to the engine and the wind. We have bottled water and some toast, but nobody drinks or eats much because we have no toilet. Suddenly the truck stops. A guy opens up the back door and shouts, “GET OUT! GET OUT! GET OUT!” We get out. The guy disappears. Us kids have no idea what’s going on. All our mum has told us is that we’re gonna go to London, because we have some family there. But now I’m thinking, I had imagined London differently.
I’m also thinking, Ooooh man, I could eat something right now. Anything.
After a few hours my mum finds an old guy who’s walking his dog. She says, “Hey, where are we at?”
He says, “Uhh … in Randers.”
Turns out we’re not in London.
We’re in a little city in Denmark.
We’re shocked, but in the end nobody really cares. Fuck this, we’re safe. We’re together. We find a police station, where an officer sits down with my mum and checks her documents and takes notes. He understands the situation. After a while he comes over to us kids and says, “Heard you guys are hungry?” We don’t speak a word of Danish or English, but we can see that he’s rubbing his tummy — the international sign for food, haha! We just nod, as if to say, YES WE ARE! He takes us in his police car to a kiosk, where he buys us some bananas, milk and toast. And I kill that food. (Still probably the best meal I’ve ever had.)
The officer then puts us on a train to the Sandholm centre, the largest reception station for asylum seekers in Denmark. It’s like a prison: max security, tall fences, barbed wire. They show us our rooms, which have military-style bunk beds and blue, metal cupboards. They also give us five frozen pizzas. I’ve never seen frozen pizza before. It’s not really a speciality in Afghanistan!! We’re told to put them in the oven for so-and-so long. They get burnt, not gonna lie. I’m like, What the fuck is this?
At the camp we see people from everywhere: Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo, Iraq, Armenia, Russia. You name it, they are there. Seeing some of them, I’m like, Holy shit, this guy looks like a murderer. Like they have scars on their faces or they’ve been shot in the head. One day we hear that someone at the camp has been stabbed. We’re not surprised.
While we’re there the police process our information. We know that if our information’s shit, or if they think we’re criminals or something, we’ll be sent back. Almost every morning we hear officers knocking on doors because they’ve come to deport people. Some go voluntarily, others fight. Some try to escape.
After two months we are moved to a much nicer refugee camp, near Aalborg. We’re led to a bunch of barracks, where we get our own rooms and a shared kitchen. To most Danes it would be basic at best.
To us, it is heaven.
The camp is safe and open. There are families there, kids our age. We spend our days at a language school from nine to one, and then we gather on a bumpy little grass patch and play hide and seek, or we play football with two goals that are totally smashed. And I love it. I love EVERY part of it. I spend hours and hours trying to dribble past the boys. I begin to realise that I have inherited some of my dad’s athleticism. One of my younger sisters, who isn’t even interested in sports, has also become athletic, with sick muscles and super speed. (Today all of my sisters have become really sporty. Well, except one of them. She likes shopping, if that counts as a sport.)
As weeks become months I notice how everyone at the camp is bonding. There are so many nationalities, but all of us have something in common: We have suffered a lot, and we are worried about what will happen to us. My mum has become best friends with a lady from Iraq called Fatima, who has fled from Saddam Hussein’s regime. Neither of them speaks a word of English, but they have deep conversations through some kind of improvised sign language, and I’m like, WHAT? But my mum is also losing a lot of weight. She has lost her husband and left her home and she’s taking care of five little girls, and now she has no idea what will happen next. Are we gonna stay here? Are we gonna be sent back?
Every morning the refugees check the office to see if they have gotten a letter. The letters say whether you can stay in Denmark or whether you’ll be deported. Whenever a family has been allowed to stay, everyone, the ENTIRE camp, is celebrating, and there’s a party in the kitchen with snacks and music and dancing. That’s how much everyone has bonded. Everyone’s just flipping.
One day, after about seven months at the camp, I take a long hike with Diana, one of my younger sisters, into a natural area behind the football pitch. We look for berries and just talk about stuff.
Diana says, “What’s gonna happen with us?”
I say, “I don’t know.”
She says, “Imagine if we could stay.”
I say, “Oooh, that would be so sick.”
She says, “Will we be able to play more football then?”
I say, “I guess so.…”
When we come back to the barracks, everyone is gathered in the kitchen. It looks like a party. When we come in, they congratulate us and just flip out. Mum is crying. Fatima is crying, too.
Earlier that day a letter had arrived for us at the office. We have been accepted to stay.
And that is how my new chapter in Denmark began.
That’s how I got my life.
This is just my story. Other refugees arrive in Europe with their own traumas and losses. Some will be sent back. Many others will not arrive at all. Some will get killed before they get here. But I want to add that even the refugees who are welcomed into a new country might not necessarily be accepted.
When I came to Denmark, I never really fit in. Not even in my football team. Usually Danish players keep their head down and follow the rules and do whatever the coach tells them. But now my teammates had to play with this new girl from Afghanistan who followed her gut and played with flair and fire. I got a lot of negative attention. For instance, when we were warming up, I might take the ball and dribble a bit while we were running. And some of my teammates would be like, “Oh, she’s such a prima donna.” Even my coach, a guy I saw as my mentor, was telling me that I needed to act more like the other girls. He’d say, “Why can’t you be like her?” I always had it in my head that what I was doing was wrong.
Luckily, after a while, I became more integrated, and I began to play for the Danish national team and stuff — which, believe me, gives me a lot of pride. But if you dig down a little deeper, I still don’t feel truly accepted.
It’s hard to explain, but basically you are always gonna be seen as an outsider. Like that’s just a fact. And I think it applies to a lot of refugees. If people can choose between their own and someone who comes from a different area and who looks different or has a different last name, they will go with what they know. You know? I have felt that most of the days of my life. My oldest sister, Giti, was a really, really, really big talent — technically she was a way better player than I was. But when we came to Denmark, this mindset of not feeling like she belonged broke her down.
Luckily, I’m not really affected by it. It’s simple, really: I have been through so much, I have been so low, that nothing I will experience from here on will ever get close to it. I have accepted what happened with my dad. It’s still painful, but I’m over it. And now I’m like, What’s the worst that can happen? And I really love that feeling. I don’t think I’m invincible, but it’s like, Holy shit, you need an entire army to bring me down.
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I’m also used to having to prove myself more than anyone else around me. These are the cards that have been dealt to me, and the older I have gotten, the more I have learned about how the world works.
But that doesn’t mean that we should all just accept everything that is unfair.
Although I play for Paris Saint-Germain now, in a very multicultural city, I still get pissed off when I see things that are unfair. So I hope that my story has given some insight into what it can be like to be a refugee and have nothing. I also hope you will agree with me when I say that nationality isn’t as important as basic human rights. The world, after all, is for everyone.
Maybe this will sound optimistic, but I hope that the turbulent period we are in right now — with the pandemic, the George Floyd murder and the worldwide protests — will teach us something. Which is that when everything is stripped away, what we have left is compassion and kindness. After COVID-19, more people will have experienced an actual crisis, and so they might have more empathy for refugees of war — or climate change, for that matter. Maybe the media coverage of refugees will become more positive, too, so that more people will be like, “O.K., let’s help these refugees. They might actually give something good back to our country.”
Hopefully this period can reignite a sense of compassion, not just in politicians, but in everyone. Even if it just leads to small acts of humanity, like asking how your neighbour is doing. Those little things — a favour, a smile, a meal for someone who’s hungry — can make a huuuge impact on people’s lives. I have experienced that myself.
Honestly, I do believe that a big change is possible. Humans are capable of a lot more than you could ever imagine. I’m not saying that people should sacrifice their own livelihoods in order to help others. Not at all. You have to ensure that you are O.K. first.
But if you have the resources and the energy to help out, and you’re seeing someone lying on the ground in front of you, I hope that you’re gonna reach out your hand.
Because in the end, what makes us human is not money. It’s not comfort. No, no.
It’s our ability to understand the suffering of other human beings.