Words: Khalila Douze

Photography: Aïda Dahmani

Curiosity is Nadia Nadim’s compass. It’s what led the 32-year-old Paris Saint-Germain star to first kick a football, at a refugee camp in Denmark, where her family had just fled from Afghanistan. Her curiosity led her to finish school, go pro and explore opportunities around the world.

After jump-starting her career with Denmark’s biggest football clubs, Nadia went on to play for Denmark’s national team and made history as the first person of color to join the team. She then played for U.S. teams, the New Jersey Sky Blue and the Portland Thorns, and one of Europe’s best teams, Manchester City, before landing her current spot with PSG.

Nadia’s capacity for new experiences is only matched by her capacity for language. She speaks seven of them, including Hindi, which she says she learned from watching Bollywood films. “I don’t think it’s hard to learn anything,” she asserts confidently, on a video call from Paris. “You just have to know how you learn stuff.”

In that sense, it’s no surprise that Nadia is just one semester away from completing qualifications to become a reconstructive surgeon, a medical path rooted in her intention to be creative and help others.

Named UNESCO’s 2019 Champion for Girls’ and Women’s Education, as well as goodwill ambassador for the Danish Refugee Council, Nadia Nadim is a rare force. Her curiosity is guided by empathy, and it shines through in everything she does.

Below, Nadia talks about her life, her career and being one of the faces of Jordan Brand’s new capsule collection with Paris Saint-Germain.

You are so many things at once — an athlete, an activist, an ambassador and a training surgeon. How do you like to describe yourself?

Describing myself as just one thing is really hard, because I want to be so many things. Since I was little, I always got put into boxes or assigned labels. People would say things like, “You can only be a footballer.” For me, it doesn’t really matter. I do what I like to do, and I do my best. Most of the time, it works out. If I had to describe myself, I’m curious. I feel really grateful that I’m able to always push my boundaries and try new things. I’m trying to be the best version of myself, which is a lot of things and not just one thing.

Since the end of the season got canceled due to the pandemic, how have you been spending your time this year?

It hasn’t been easy, because we had some amazing games ahead of us, but it is what it is. I got to spend some time with my family, which I don’t usually get to do. I spent time with my mom, in her garden, and I learned some new skills like gardening, carpentry and painting. I really enjoyed it, to be honest. You miss out on these little moments with your family when you’re away.

“I'm trying to be the best version of myself, which is a lot of things and not just one thing.”

Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you start playing football?

I started playing football when I arrived in Denmark in 2000. We arrived as refugees, at a refugee camp. The camp was close to these amazing fields used by a football club in the northern part of Denmark. I saw other Danish kids training on the field, and it was amazing to watch. I think it was fate. That’s how I discovered football.

We used to play our own little football games in the small grass field in the camp. I found some kids from similar circumstances, who came from different countries. We wanted to forget everything that happened in the past and just have fun. We were there for eight months, and we got to be kids again. It was safe. Slowly, from there, I wanted to train properly. I wanted to be part of a team, and step-by-step, now I’m here.

What do you recall as the most challenging part of the immigration experience?

The entire journey obviously wasn’t a fun experience — the reasons for leaving your house, your country, your friends and your family behind. Besides the journey, there’s so much uncertainty about what’s going to be next. It’s one of the worst feelings.

When we finally arrived in Denmark, we were starting from scratch. I was 11 or 12 years old, but I was basically 0, in terms of who I was in Denmark. I didn’t know the language. I didn’t know the culture. We didn’t have anything. I always imagined myself in this race, because I felt so behind, at first. Life is a race, and you’re like, I want to be the best.

How have your experiences as a refugee, and the travels from your football career, shaped your understanding of culture and identity?

I’ve been lucky and blessed to travel in different countries and learn about new cultures. Every time you learn about a new culture, or a new language, it gives you the opportunity to connect with other human beings on a different level. Your understanding of the world grows.

I’ve said this before, but my grandfather once told me that if you speak one language, you’re one person. If you speak two languages, you are two people. That’s my mindset, and it makes me a more understanding and empathic person. Education, in general, is the key to a lot of problems in the world right now.

Why did you decide to pursue a degree in medicine and specifically in reconstructive surgery?

There are three really simple reasons. One of them is because I know the value of getting help and how much it can mean for someone in need. I want to be in a position to help other people. Second, plastic surgery and reconstruction are a more creative side of medicine. You also get to work in different areas of the body. The third reason is that you can make a lot of money. Money has a lot of power, and if you have the means, you can help other people, too.

How does playing football compare to operating? The differences are quite obvious, but how are the two similar, in your experience?

I think there are actually a lot of similarities. One thing is the pressure, which I love. Performing as a top, elite footballer, especially now that I’m playing for PSG, comes with a lot of pressure. You have to win games. I’ve been raised with that pressure all my life. It’s the same thing with medicine or being in the operating room. You have the pressure of not failing. There’s no room for error.

Of course, there are a lot of other factors, too. Both roles require discipline and professionalism, which are important. You’re training to be at this level, and you have to prepare for the games properly. In medicine, you also have to know what you’re going to do and how you’re going to execute the job. Then, of course, there’s adrenaline.

Repping Paris Saint-Germain is a big deal. Today, you’re also repping the new Jordan Brand x PSG collection. How do you feel about the partnership overall?

I think it’s huge. Obviously, MJ is a legend, so having the Jumpman on our shirts makes them special. I like that we get to be unique and different. When you see our outfits compared to other teams, you’re like, “Yeah, we are a bit different.” My favorite piece from the new collection is the gold pants that say Paris on them. I love all the clothes we get from PSG. You don’t always keep everything you get from a team, but with my Jordan x PSG pieces, I’m like, “I’m going to keep all of this!”

The new Jordan Brand x Paris Saint-Germain collection releases October 10 on Jordan.com and at select retailers globally.

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