Afghanistan's all-girl robotics team can't get visas to come to the US

Jul 13, 2017

A group of teenage girls from Afghanistan who had planned to come to Washington, DC, for an international robotics competition won't be coming after all, after the US State Department denied their visas.

Update: On Thursday, July 13, the girls were on their way to Washington after US authorities changed course and allowed them to enter the country.​

“This opportunity would allow us to invent, design, and create things that could possibly allow our community, our lives, and us,” the team members wrote on their page of the FIRST Global Challenge competition website. “We want to make a difference and most breakthroughs in science, technology, and other industries normally start with the dream of a child to do something great. We want to be that child and pursue our dreams to make a difference in people’s lives."

The team of six had been working for months to build a robot that could complete a variety of engineering tasks, like providing access to clean drinking water.

Just getting this far had been a challenge. While other competitors received raw materials from the event organizer, the Afghan team had to improvise because “the box sent from America had been held up for months amid concerns about terrorism,” according to the Washington Post.

So being selected to come was a thrill. But it also meant enduring the US visa application process.

The girls had to make a 500-mile journey twice from their hometown of Herat, in western Afghanistan, to the US Embassy in Kabul for an interview.

“I can't tell you why exactly [their applications were denied], but I do know that a fair opportunity was given by the US State Department and embassy,” said Joe Sestak, a former congressman and president of FIRST Global. “We are saddened they won't be here.”

The team was sponsored by Roya Mahboob, founder of Afghanistan’s Citadel software company, and the country’s first female tech CEO. Mahboob told Mashable the girls spent the day crying after finding out they wouldn’t be able to travel.

"The first time [they were rejected] it was very difficult talking with the students," Mahboob said. "They're young and they were very upset.”

Although the young women won’t make it to the US, their robot is now on its way to participate in the competition. The team of six will tune in to the event via Skype, and a group of young Afghan-American women will represent them at the event.

The team from Afghanistan isn't alone in being rejected, according to Sestak. A team from Gambia was also denied entry, and will also participate via Skype.


From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI