Nadia Nadim: Advancing Equality through Sports, Medicine, and Education

June 11, 2024
Podcast episode banner with Dr. Nadia Nadim's portrait.

Season 4 | Episode 7

In this episode of Creative Development with IFC Makhtar Diop sits down with the incredible Nadia Nadim. Born in Afghanistan and having fled to Denmark as a refugee, Nadia's journey is nothing short of extraordinary. She has played for top-tier football teams like Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, AC Milan, and the Danish national women's team; mastered nine languages; and is a doctor specializing in reconstructive surgery. As a UNESCO Champion for Girls' and Women's education, Nadia shares her insights on overcoming adversity, the power of education, and the importance of equal opportunities in sports and beyond. 

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Makhtar Diop: Welcome to Creative Development with IFC, I’m Makhtar Diop, Managing Director of the International Finance Corporation. Today I'm joined by a very special guest, Nadia Nadim. Born in Afghanistan, Nadia, her mother and four sisters arrived in Denmark as refugees when she was just 12 years old. Since then, she has become a top tier international player, playing for teams like Manchester City, Paris St Germain, AC Milan, and the Danish National Women's Team. Off the field, Nadia is equally impressive. She has mastered nine languages, has qualified as a doctor specializing in reconstructive surgery, and is a UNESCO champion for girls and women education. Nadia, it’s a great pleasure to meet you. Welcome to Creative Development with IFC.

Nadia Nadim: Thanks for having me. I'm very excited.

Makhtar: What you’re doing is just incredible as a human being. And I would love to understand where all this started. Moving from Afghanistan, being a top player, being a medical doctor - take us through that journey.

Nadia: Well, I would say it started when I was born. I was born in Afghanistan. But unfortunately, because of war, and because of my father's position in the Afghan army, he was executed, leaving our family in a very harsh situation, which at the end made us flee Afghanistan, and we found safety in my adopted country, Denmark. I always say it's fate because I was in a refugee camp in Denmark, and next to us was this amazing football field. And then that's you know, that's the first time where I saw girls play football. And now we're here in Milano and I'm playing for AC Milan. 

Makhtar: The field in the refugee camp must have been filled with boys, or was it equal opportunity there in the camp in terms of playing football?

Nadia: You know, being born in Afghanistan, being a girl with culture, tradition, religion playing a huge role in your upbringing, there are so few things you're allowed to do, so many things you're not supposed to do. And playing football was definitely not one of those things I was supposed to do. I was very grateful to have a mother who was very educated. And she never found anything wrong in girls playing or attending sport. And also, I feel fortunate to have been, you know, in a country like Denmark, where the differences between what girls and boys can do is not that big. You know girls play sports, boys play sports. So, for me, at the beginning, I would say it was tough because you don't really know the culture. You don't know the people, you're really, really new in all of it. And then a bit scared because you're a kid. But I felt as soon as I had the courage to take the first step towards the football field, I felt everyone around me, even though they didn’t know me, and we didn't speak the same language or look like each other, they opened their arms. That was a beautiful thing. And I think that's also one of the reasons I love football so much because it's such an international communication tool. A tool that you can communicate even though you don't really speak the language. It eased me in, in Denmark, I felt I belonged quite fast to be honest.

Makhtar: Nadia, you were in Paris St Germain, you are in AC Milan, and it's quite impressive that you are able to mix that very high-level career with academic achievement [in medicine]. How were you able to organize your day?

Nadia: That's a great question. This might sound like a cliche, but where there’s a will there’s a way. I really wanted to do both. For me, football has always been my passion. It's something that I really love. And I'm very, very, very competitive. So, I always want to do my best, I want to be the best. So, I think that's the reason. As you know I’ve played for some of the best teams in the world. You said it, Manchester City, Paris Saint Germain, Portland Thorns, and now in AC Milan. And I have also over 100 caps for the Danish national team. It’s because of that inner motivation to like want to learn and grow. But I also knew from a very early age, and again, that's because of my mother the power of education. I know, education is the most important thing that we have in the world. It gives you a voice, it makes you understand your surroundings. So, when I was around, you know, 14 or15 years old it was not enough for me. I want to also contribute in a different way. As a doctor, I felt you know that I could be in positions where I could have a direct impact on people's lives. I do understand how it feels to be on the other side and receiving help, hence my passion to give back and make a difference in the world. 

Makhtar: But you’re talking about it as if it was an easy thing to do. Just to remind people at the level that Nadia is playing, she has two or three training sessions a day. She is on the road all the time, and the team gets together to prepare for the European Cup, the World Cup, and she managed to be a medical doctor while doing that. So, you have something special or quite unique in that regard.

Nadia: Thank you. Thank you. That's really kind of you. Yes, I do believe I have certain talent. But also, I do believe in hard work. I think hard work is underestimated. I know these are two big professions that required a lot of my time, but you can always find a way to make it work. And for me, I was really like almost obsessed with making this work. And it's definitely not been easy. I'll be honest with you. There's been times where you know, especially close to my exams, where I didn't have enough time to get everything working. But again, I put my head down and I’ll try to concentrate and focus on why I was doing this, what was my motivation. And at the end of the day, you know, if your passion and your heart is there, and you're willing to grind it out, it will take you places. And for me probably because of my background, seeing what I've seen and experienced at a young age, it built this character in me and I want to be in a position where first of all I will never want to go back to those feelings and emotions I had as a kid because you're so hopeless. And I think that's probably my biggest engine, my biggest drive that I don't want to be in a position where I don't have power over my own life and I’m not able to make my own decisions about what I want to do. So I think that's probably been the biggest factor for me, but also for my siblings who have actually accomplished quite amazing things as well.

Makhtar: But your passion also, I think, was inspired in a sense by your story. Reconstructive surgery is at the crossroads of where you're coming from because a lot of refugees have been suffering from trauma which requires conservative surgery. But also players often need to have reconstructive surgery because their limbs or knees or something like that have been damaged during their professional career. So, is this where your passion for reconstructive surgery is coming from?

Nadia: Actually, that's a great question. I think it's because of my character to be honest. I felt that it would fit my character, my personality the best. I'm one of those people who when I start doing something I want a challenge. And I felt reconstructive plastic surgery will give you that freedom, that creativity - because you have to find ways to try to fix this problem. There’s not going to be only one way to do it. Even though I know that orthopedic surgery would be in my lane just because of my background in sports, but I feel my calling is reconstructive plastic surgery. And the times, you know, we've been in an operating room assisting and I’ve followed some brilliant plastic surgeons, it really excites me to be in the operating room. I get the same feeling as when you score a goal, that adrenaline and the responsibility that you have in your hands is quite unique and something that I really enjoy.

Makhtar: Both professions require really a lot of teamwork, you have a full team working with you when you are a surgeon and when you are a striker or a member of the team in soccer you need also to rely on your colleagues and your teammates. How is the need for teamwork in sports helped you in your professional career as a medical doctor?

Nadia: You said it yourself, we are dependent on each other. There's no one in the world who can win a game alone no one, no matter if you are Messi or Ronaldo, the biggest of the biggest. You need to have support. Everything that I've learned on the football field is something that I can take with me in every aspect of my life. If it's in the hospital, if it's with my family, you learn to respect, you learn to understand, you learn how to work with each other, even though you might have differences. Because at the end of the day, this overall goal, that's where we need to go. And if all of us are not on the same page, it's not going to work. So that’s definitely something that I've been taking with me, you know. And I love that aspect of the game. Everyone has a role. I like to be the one, I wouldn't say in charge, I like to lead. I like to have that extra responsibility. So it's a beautiful thing. And that's something that I use a lot everywhere, actually, not only in medicine and football, every aspect of my life. 

Makhtar: You're an ambassador at UNESCO, you're working with UNESCO on women and education, and you have a big emphasis on STEM because of your profession. If today you were to talk to people who have the same passion as you, what you will be telling them to be aware of that maybe you were not aware of when you are entering this complex and challenging journey. What would be the words of advice that you would be giving to young women?

Nadia: Yes, that's a great question. I would say first and foremost, especially if you're a woman and girl, as I said, all humans will always put in boxes, certain boxes are bigger than others. And depending on where you come from those boxes vary in size, as I said. So if you were born in Afghanistan, your box is quite small. If you were born in parts of Africa, South America again, and depending if you’re a girl, that box is really tiny. So you're supposed to - at least that's what the world tells you - to stay in your box, and do everything in there. But for me, in reality, there is no box, you should do whatever you want to and you think you can do. Nothing comes easy, you have to work really hard. You're going to meet people again, who say no, you're not supposed to get out of that box, what you're doing is wrong. There's going to be a lot of people. But at the end of the day, don't listen to them, listen to your own heart, your own passion. You can do whatever you want to do. I know it sounds like a cliche, but that is the reality, there is no secret to it, follow your heart. And then of course, nothing comes by itself, you have to work harder than anyone else and believe that you're capable of doing it. 

Makhtar: You know I was lucky to attend the last Women's Football World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. It was just an amazing atmosphere, it was just fantastic to see how women’s football now has taken another dimension. And it's interesting, because a year later, you see the WNBA taking another dimension. At the heart of the conversation is wages, salaries paid to professional players, conditions. You know you learn that the national team of Country X is not having the same facilities as the men's national team in the same countries. You start realizing that you are working in much harder conditions, you start realizing that the stadium are much smaller, and they are not at the standard and so forth. So how do you see the trajectory now that we have this kind of big push to put this issue at the table and try to address them in the right way?

Nadia: Yeah, indeed, you know, women's football has grown a lot, it's amazing to be a part of it, amazing to see. I will say it's on time and that people open their eyes and see that there's like a huge potential in every aspect. Investing wise, there's like a huge market that not a lot of people have tapped into it. But slowly happening, really nice to see. When it comes to the salary gap there is between male and female players yeah there is still a really long way to go. But I'm optimistic. I hope in the future, we're going to, you know, get closer. I don't know ever if we're going to have the same salaries - I doubt it, but just getting closer, that will be amazing as well. Because at the end of the day, you should get paid for your efforts and what you put in. My biggest dream is, that it's not only four or five countries who are getting there, you know, getting closer, better facilities. But actually also the countries where you don't hear about them, the ones that might not attend a World Cup. It's not about the money, it's about the access, that they're given the same opportunities, they're given the same chance to do something with their talents, to attend sports. Because let's face it, there's probably like 5, 6, 7 countries in the world right now in the women's game where from the federation side and from the fans, they have the support and the media's behind them and it's you know, it's growing and it's beautiful to watch. But in a lot of parts of the world, the girls don't even know football exists. And that's, you know, one of my missions in  life, you know, to bring this beautiful game to places where kids don't have it, because it is a powerful tool, and you can learn so much. But also, who knows, maybe the kids in Afghanistan - if all of them were given a chance you’ll have more football players from there. If kids from you know, Somalia also were given the chance, you'll have amazing players. At the end of the day for me its all about access.

Makhtar: Nadia, for me, I think there’s nobody better than you to really help push that message because you are such a role model and inspiration for people like me. And I'm sure that you will be surprised how you will be impacting a lot of women in some places when they hear you talking. I see that in some developing countries which are now becoming more important in the football scene like take my country, Senegal, I see now more and more academies, which are including women. They had very strong academies for men, but now they start having academies for women. And I'm sure that all these young girls who are now looking at professional careers will be delighted to hear from you. And I understand you speak all the languages in the world, or nearly so you can talk to people in many languages, and share that experience of yours. Because I think there is nothing more powerful than your experience in terms of leadership for women. 

Nadia: Thank you. That's really kind of you. And yes, I do agree. It's amazing to see the growth of football also, as you said, globally. And you spoke about leadership, female leadership, I always say girls who play football become great leaders or the qualities that you can learn in sports that you can take over your real life or your working life.

Makhtar: You don't realize how true it is what you just said. The former prime minister of Senegal, a woman, plays soccer. I was meeting with some of my staff, I had lunch with them. And I realized that two of my colleagues played at a very high level for their countries. And more recently, I was at our board. And the Scandinavian representative, was also a member of the national team of her own country. So I see it, the more you talk to people and learn about their experience and life, you realize that they've been playing sport at a high level and that helped a lot in helping them in a leadership role. So thank you for being that role model.

Maybe if I can have a word of advice for what institutions like ours, IFC, which is financing the private sector in developing countries can do to help on the gender side. We talk about leadership, it’s becoming part of our scorecard. We are trying to practice it and do it in boards in companies, to see the number of women who are represented in boards, the number of women who are leading companies. But is there any thing that you think that we can do in our space based on your experience?

Nadia: That's amazing, you know, the fact that you're asking that's already like a big, big thing. For me, I believe in the power of opportunity. And I believe in equal opportunity. I don't believe in only given a chance, because of your gender, no. I want to be given a chance because of my qualities. So just the fact that you are trying to like open the doors and say, hey, listen, these are the positions that we offer for male and female, I think that's a big start. As humans, we try to relate to people who've done it before, because until then, we don't really believe in it until it's done. So having more leaders, more women in any sector, that's going to influence the coming generations. I think that's probably the best way to create change. So I think you're already on the right track.

Makhtar: Something that you said which resonates a lot with me is the ways that you were empowered in your family, to be able to do what you've done. And I think we should never underestimate it. So I think that all those messages will be very important in helping us shape leadership experience. I'll be honored and delighted to partner with you on that.

Nadia: Thank you. Yes. 100%. As we mentioned, something we know in sports, we have to work together to achieve our goals. There is no one who can make it alone. And that's why I'm always open to people who are on the same track, have the same ambition, same goal. The more we are, the stronger voice we're going to have and a bigger impact. 

Makhtar: Thank you so much. Nadia is been a huge pleasure talking to you and getting to know you. And I'm sure that we will be doing some more things together. And thank you for being available. 

Thank you for listening. Creative Development with IFC is produced by Lindy Mtongana, Aida Holly-Nambi and Maeve Frances for iFC. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with your networks and tell a friend.