Tennis Takes Afghan Woman to U.S. Open From World Without Hope
As a child in war-torn Afghanistan, Dori Samadzai-Bonner cherished a postcard of kids building sand castles in San Diego and dreamed of a place where girls had the freedom to choose.
Now, thanks to an improbable global journey and a tennis racket, she is about to become part of a photo that she hopes will provide similar inspiration.
That picture, of Samadzai-Bonner standing on center court with tennis Hall of Famer Martina Navratilova, will be shot today, the opening night of the U.S. Open at the National Tennis Center in New York.
“That is what’s so great here in America, you can do anything you want,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Montgomery, Alabama. “Tennis gave me that hope. It allowed me to be proud of my gender and feel equal to anybody else, and that was a feeling I never had before.”
Samadzai-Bonner is one of four tennis players who will be honored by the U.S. Tennis Association, along with 18-time Grand Slam singles champion Navratilova, men’s player James Blake and wheelchair tennis competitor Esther Vergeer.
The 32-year-old Samadzai-Bonner was chosen based on an essay she wrote in response to a USTA e-mail asking the organization’s 750,000 members to describe how tennis had changed their life.
She wrote about her childhood in Kabul, where she said girls were discouraged from participating in sports, and how playing tennis helped leave her past behind.
“Tennis instantaneously became my escape from the years of misery I lived through the Cold War, the suppression and all the cruelty associated simply based on the fact that I was born a girl,” she wrote.
Kurt Kamperman, chief executive for community tennis at the USTA, said the organization asked its members how tennis had impacted them.
“Dori’s story in particular stood out because while there were literally dozens of stories from people about the therapeutic aspect of tennis, it’s not often that just the right to play tennis was viewed with such passion,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s about humanity and it’s also about the rights we take for granted here. She has used tennis as a way to acclimate to a new country, a new homeland, with such passion. ”
Samadzai-Bonner was born in 1977, and her childhood was spent in a country under the influence of the Soviet Union. In those pre-Taliban days, she said, Afghan traditions prevented girls from trying sports and she watched in despair as her brother played soccer.
“It would taint your family name if you ran around with boys or something like that. I wanted to play, I wanted to be equal,” she said. “A 9-year-old girl, the focus is on training to become a good wife who will take care of her family, rather than go be a kid and play a sport.”
Dori was 10 when her family escaped to India, where they spent about three years living in a garage. Unable to afford a trip for the whole family, her parents paid a smuggler to take Dori and her brother, who is two years older, to the U.S. They got as far as Thailand, she said, where the smuggler stole their money and abandoned them.
Their parents sent them more money, and they finally reached New York on Christmas Eve 1991, then moved to Los Angeles to live with an aunt. Samadzai-Bonner went to North Hollywood High School, where she discovered a game she had never seen in her native land.
Reluctant to Play
Samadzai-Bonner watched from a distance as girls played tennis in gym class. At first she refused when a coach asked her to join the class.
“I still felt like I was betraying my parents,” she said. “It was something that was embedded in my head as to how a ‘good’ girl is supposed to behave and playing sports is not part of it. I never felt comfortable getting in a tennis outfit and getting out there and playing.”
But she played, and continued with the sport off and on.
She married Lincoln Bonner, a major in the U.S. Air Force, last year and he was transferred to Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. After she arrived in Montgomery, she joined the USTA and started playing in tennis leagues. Now she plays six times a week.
“Playing tennis is a therapy,” she said. “I was given this opportunity to look forward to my future and what could be, and not what was there before. It has given my dreams wings.”
Samadzai-Bonner, who is one semester away from completing a degree in criminal justice and homeland security, hopes her photo with Navratilova can inspire girls who face the same challenges as a young Dori.
“She is my inspiration because she made things better for women,” Samadzai-Bonner said. “The postcard let me see something that was so not my reality, see another world out there. I hope that, to some women and girls in a third-world country, it touches them the way that postcard touched me.”