Afghan girls show they’ve got true grit

| September 5, 2017 | 0 Comments

A group of Afghan girls, all robotics fundis, were invited to participate in an international robotics competition, the FIRST Global Challenge, hosted by non-profit First Global – which promotes science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and careers in the developing world through Olympics-style robotics competitions – in Washington in the US in July.

However, the young Afghans were humiliated when their visa applications were rejected, twice. The US Department of State would not explain why the Afghan team’s visa applications were denied, saying that “all visa applications are adjudicated on a case-by-case basis in accordance with US law.” Authorities did confirm that Afghanistan is not part of US President Donal Trump’s order to ban travel from six Muslim-majority countries. Robotics teams from Syria, Iran and Sudan – which are on that list – were granted visas to compete.

Members of the team from The Gambia were also granted visas after initially being denied. Afghanistan has dealt with a fresh offensive attributed to the Taliban as it continued its war against the Kabul government this year. In addition, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group’s affiliate in Afghanistan has also upped attacks in urban areas. Afghani girls have repeatedly been denied education, so the invitation to the robotics competition was significant, as it was a chance for the team mates to demonstrate their STEM skills.

The girls had faced numerous obstructions in their efforts to take part in the robotics competition. They had been selected from a pool of 150 applicants, and their kit’s shipment was delayed, allowing them to practise for only a short time to be able to construct a robot that sorts balls, has the ability to recognise orange and blue colours, and can move objects to put them in their correct places. After obtaining permission from their parents, the girls travelled from their homes in Herat, making the 800 km journey to the US embassy in Kabul twice, because their applications were denied the first time.

After protestations from First Global and dozens of other groups around the world, the US Department of Homeland Security changed its mind and let the girls compete. The team leader was Roya Mahboob, a renowned Afghan technology entrepreneur who interpreted for the teenagers and came on behalf of her company, Digital Citizen Fund, a women’s empowerment non-profit that sponsored the Afghan team.

The team’s robot was called Better Idea of Afghan Girls. While the Afghan team didn’t win (Team Europe took the gold, and the Polish and Armenian teams took silver and bronze respectively), they stole the hearts of all the onlookers, reported the New York Times, earning them a silver medal as part of an award for courageous achievement.

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