The Thorns' Newest Star is an Afghan Refugee Who Escaped the Taliban

Nadia Nadim's extraordinary journey led her to Portland—and lots of goals.

Nadia Nadim hammers the ball over a leaping goalie, and it ricochets off the post 30 feet into the air.

A brief scowl flits across the 5-foot-9-inch, slightly built striker's face as she sprints back into position on the Providence Park turf.

It's supposed to be light practice for the Portland Thorns before an Aug. 27 match at Seattle. But Nadim is striking the ball as if a World Cup berth were at stake.

Dripping sweat in the 94-degree heat afterward, she talks about defying expectations.

"As a Muslim, I was told not to play sports," she says. "But just because you have a certain religion and culture, that should not define you as a person."

Yet Nadim's story stands out. Many of her teammates followed a well-worn path to the Thorns, through suburban soccer clubs and elite university teams.

Nadim's family followed a different route, fleeing the Taliban and landing in a Danish refugee camp.

Nadim, 28, is atypical in other ways: She's fluent in five languages, is three semesters shy of completing her medical degree—and watches a lot of Bollywood movies.

But what matters to the Thorns: She can play soccer.

At the Thorns' most recent home game July 30, Nadim headed in the contest's only goal, to the delight of 19,231 fans. (She leads the team in goals with five.)

The decisive header was evidence why the Thorns traded away a big chunk of their future for her.

"When you're on the field, nothing else matters," she says. "The rush you get from scoring a goal is just amazing."

Related: How Portland fell in love with the Thorns, and embraced women's soccer like no other city in America.

But Nadim's journey from Afghanistan to Providence Park is a symbol of far more for observers who recognize the odds she faced.

"To escape from the Taliban, it's hard for me to imagine how she could live through that," says Negina Pirzad, a 2016 University of Oregon graduate whose parents emigrated to the state from Afghanistan in the 1970s. "When my family heard there was an Afghan player on the Thorns, they were like, 'That's amazing.'"

(Corri Goates) (Corri Goates)

Nadim was one of five daughters born in Herat, Afghanistan, to a military general father and school principal mother.

When Nadim was 11, she says, her father, a former member of the Afghan men's national field hockey team, was summoned by hostile Taliban officials, who seized control of the country from the military. The family never saw him again.

Nadim's mother soon fled the country with five daughters in tow. They ended up at a refugee camp in Denmark.

The journey out of one of the world's most repressive societies—where women enjoy few rights and little freedom, including the opportunity to chase a soccer ball while wearing shorts—opened a new world to Nadim.

She progressed rapidly from a scrawny refugee watching Danes play soccer through a wire fence to the first foreign-born player on the Danish national team.

She says her life experience helped on the field.

"I've seen a lot," she says. When she gets hurt or her team loses, she understands there are bigger problems in the world. "It's made me more mature," she says.

Related: Four of the Thorns' U.S. Olympic players talk about what it's like to lose on a global stage.

Nadim began her professional career in a Danish league, where she would come to score almost at will—as many as six goals in a game.

In 2013, the National Women's Soccer League launched in the U.S., bringing together many of the world's top players. Nadim wanted in.

"Women's soccer is taken more seriously here than in Europe," she says. "I wanted to see if it was for me."

Toward the end of the 2014 season, she came to the U.S., signing with the NWSL's New Jersey Sky Blue.

The adjustment to a more physical, higher-level league was difficult. For men, the highest level of play is in Europe; Major League Soccer—the league in which the Timbers play—is something of an afterthought. For women, the NWSL is the ultimate proving ground.

"Here, every game is really challenging," Nadim says. "Suddenly not being able to score all the time was emotionally hard."

But she did score seven goals in her first six NWSL games, putting herself on the Thorns' wish list.

After joining the team this season, she's quickly carved out a place on the Thorns' all-star roster, which features seven Olympians.

Asked to describe her in one word, her teammate and roommate Dagny Brynjarsdóttir says, "Sunshine."

"She has been through a lot in the past as a kid growing up, and I think that defines who she is today," says Brynjarsdóttir, a member of the Icelandic national team. "I haven't met any other refugee that has made it this far in soccer and school and done this well."

After the six-month NWSL season ends and other players get to relax, Nadim heads back to Denmark to hit her medical books. She hopes to become a reconstructive plastic surgeon.

Nadim says Islam plays an important role in her life. She prays daily, although she does not attend a mosque here.

She acknowledges her life story gives her an opportunity to be an example for other Muslims, particularly young girls.

Nadim says that's a blessing rather than a burden.

"I want people to know that everything is possible," she says. "If I'm going to be able to change even one person's life, that's a huge accomplishment."

She'd like to help the Thorns win another NWSL championship and bolster the Danish national team in the Euro Cup next year.

When her playing days are over, she hopes to practice medicine somewhere warm and near water.

But that place won't be Afghanistan.

"I grew up with a different mindset and mentality," Nadim says. "It would be hard for me to function there and stay alive."

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