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BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Portland player kicks Taliban to past, aspires to be doctor; refugee camp lit soccer fire

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - Portland Thorns forward Nadia Nadim gained her passion for soccer playing with other refugees in Denmark.Nadia Nadim speaks five languages, enjoys lounging by the pool while reading medical textbooks, and likes to take refuge in a movie theater.

But nowhere is the second-year Portland Thorns forward happier than on a soccer field.

"That's a great thing about sports is you can get in it and forget everything around you," she says.

Nadim, 29, has been playing professionally since 2002.

"I feel it has the same effect on me it had in the beginning," she says. "One-hundred percent I do. It's the same pleasure. Same joy. Sometimes I don't even notice who we're playing. That's the power of sports. You can have that feeling no matter where you are."

This summer, soccer has treated Nadim to a unique experience.

Last month, she was integral to Denmark's surprising run to the European Championships final. That the host team, the Netherlands, won the title match 4-2 was a bummer. But the run to the final brought new attention to Nadim and her teammates.

"I don't think a lot of people knew we were going to the Euros. (Since) we came back, the reception and welcome has been insane," she says.

One of the more recognized players on Denmark's national team, Nadim sometimes gets noticed on the street in Copenhagen — and in Portland. But a celebratory rally following the European Championships was something new.

"Something like 4,000 people were gathered and screaming your name, and people started crying," she says.

Nadim describes being chased by fans as she walked from that rally to an appointment.

"I thought it was really fun," she says, "but if it was every day that way it might be crazy."

Nadim has a special appreciation for such moments because her story could have been much different.

She was 12 years old in 2000 when her mother and four sisters fled Afghanistan. Her father, a general in the Afghan army, was executed by the Taliban.

"In life, you don't really choose what kind of hand they deal you, and sometimes you just have to make the best of it," Nadim says. "In that moment, everything was so hectic and chaotic that we were in survival mode. You want to stay alive yourself, and I was happy that my mom was there."

With no future in Afghanistan for a family of six females, Nadim's mother arranged for a way out. The plan was to join relatives in London, but the family wound up at a refugee camp in Denmark.

It was there, playing with other refugees, that Nadim's passion for soccer sparked.

Twelve years into her pro career, Nadim still exudes childlike joy when scoring a goal, which she has done 13 times since joining the Thorns. Describing what it is like for her to score a goal in front of the Thorns' throng of fans, Nadim says she always gets goosebumps.

"I'm really blessed and honored to be a part of this club and to be playing in front of such amazing fans," she says. "During the Euros, in the finals, that atmosphere was really similar to this. It was bigger, and the crowd was going crazy against us. But I was thinking, this is insane that I get to play in something similar to this every game" in Portland.

When she isn't scoring goals for the Thorns or training to score more, Nadim's focus is medicine. She is two semesters away from completing medical school in Denmark and will return home as soon as this Thorns season ends to continue those studies.

She is spending an hour or two a day now reading ahead for the upcoming semester. Her focus is on reconstructive plastic surgery and orthopedic surgery.

Movies (Tom Cruise in "A Few Good Men" among them) had young Nadia dreaming of being a lawyer or Wall Street financier. But she chose to do her ninth-grade job shadow at a medical clinic because it was close to her house and she could sleep longer.

Nadim laughs at that memory, but found the experience fascinating. It was one of those little moments she says have shaped her.

"It's the little things in life that have had such a big impact on me, and I want to be in a situation where I can do that for other people," she says. 

"I want to be in Doctors Without Borders. I want to be in places where a doctor is really needed, to experience that and also give something. I think I have the capability to do that, so why not?"

As much success as Nadim has enjoyed on the soccer field, she figures her mother is more thrilled with her choice of medicine.

"I know for a fact that my mom wanted to be a doctor, but she never had the chance because she had to get married really young," Nadim says. "That way she could help the family because my grandpa's family were really poor."

Dagny Brynjarsdottir and Nadim are roommates in Portland and quickly became friends upon joining the Thorns last season. Brynjarsdottir, from a town of 700 in Iceland, says their personalities click. She describes Nadim as open and straightforward with a sense of humor.

"She likes to make people laugh," Brynjarsdottir says. And, sometimes, squirm.

"Sometimes when she studies she shows me interesting things, or disgusting things — and she knows I don't like that," Brynjarsdottir says.

Nadim's older sister has completed medical school and works in an emergency room. One of her younger sisters is a nurse, and the youngest is starting nursing school.

"We're going to have a clinic someday," she says with a laugh.

And perhaps stitch up Diana Nadim, third of the five sisters. Diana is an accomplished boxer who has won multiple national and Scandinavian titles and one European championship.

Before she turns her complete focus back to medical school, the 5-9 Nadim has her sights set on a National Women's Soccer League title.

"I love this league. This probably is the hardest league in the world, the best league also because the competition is so high," she says. "Here, every game is a fight. I like that. Every game is a challenge, and I love challenges and I love being under pressure all the time. Then you know you're living, huh?"

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